“Extreme crisis”: Italian Parmesan cheese producers fear for their future amid drought

"Extreme crisis": Italian Parmesan cheese producers fear for their future amid drought

On the Po River, Italy (Nation World News) — The main artery through the heart of Italy, where 30% of food is produced, is the 650-kilometre-long River Po, which stretches from the Alps to the Adriatic Sea on Italy’s northeast coast. But dry winter and spring mean this year is in trouble.

The “Great River”, as it is known, plays a fundamental role in the history of the country. Before the bridges were built, its deep waters protected civilizations on both sides from invaders who could not cross.

In later years, cities and industries grew on its banks, using the water for hydroelectric power, transportation and irrigation. Along parts of the Po River, processing plants turn the river’s soil into drinking water.

The Po is fed by winter snow and heavy spring rains from the Alps, which often cause devastating floods. In a cafe located by the river, near the town of Mantova, a measuring stick on the wall indicates the height of the water. In 1951, it nearly hit the ceiling.

But things are very different in 2022. An unusually dry winter meant little snowmelt and sporadic spring rains, leading to the worst drought in more than 70 years in northern Italy, a regional Po River agency confirmed.

"Extreme crisis": Italian Parmesan cheese producers fear for their future amid drought

The sandy bottom of the Po River can be seen near Mantua.

As a result, Po is reaching the minimum water level, according to the European Space Agency. An animation from the agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite mission shows how the river has “reduced significantly” between June 2020 and June 2022.

And this is a major problem for the millions of people who depend on Po for their livelihood. Salinization from the Adriatic Sea has begun to turn its fresh water into a poison unusable for crops. Recent analyzes have shown salt water more than 20 kilometers (12 mi) inland, and as the river recedes, the ocean will continue to fill the void.

Massimiliano Fazzini, head of the Italian Society of Environmental Geology’s Department of Climate Risk, confirmed that in the current hydrological year, which began on 1 December, the water loss in the Po Basin is between 45% and 70%. in some areas. ,

“Normally I’m not a pessimist or an alarmist, but this time you should be,” he told Nation World News, citing the difference in average snowfall. in temperature, which means that the reservoirs that could be accessed in a year of drought are not full. “The situation is dire and it can only get worse,” he said.

At Simone Minelli’s dairy farm on the banks of the Po River near Mantova, the outlook is bleak. He told Nation World News that water is an essential part of the operation to feed his herd of 300 Friesian cows.

Their dairy cows produce 30 liters of milk a day which is transformed into authentic Parmigiano Reggiano Parmesan cheese from the region. If your cows don’t drink 100 to 150 liters of water per day or overheat, the milk won’t meet strict standards and cheese won’t get the coveted seal of approval.

But the bigger concern than water in feeders is what they will eat. Minelli mainly uses the waters of the Po River to irrigate the crops that he feeds to his cattle. He showed Nation World News a soybean field that hasn’t been irrigated and is infested with small, dry plants that won’t feed his cattle.

He worries about water restrictions as the PO level falls further, and may buy food if other farmers do the same. “I’m so worried, we take it day in and day out,” he said. “If you don’t have enough food to feed your cattle, you have to cut back,” he said, referring to the number of cows in his herd.

At the nearby Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium, its milk is mixed with the milk of 20 other farmers to produce 52,000 molded cheeses each year. If the milk dries up, it doesn’t make cheese.

Above, Ada Giorgi shows Nation World News the pump house of the consortium she’s chaired for 20 years. The consortium has had to pay to remove the sand from the riverbed so that the pumps don’t clog, he said, adding a meter (3.3 ft) of pipe to lower the pumps further if the water level continues to rise. goes. Water from the pump house feeds a labyrinth of canals that lead to irrigation centers and processing plants.

The union’s 150,000 customers continue to get water, but Giorgi says she is concerned about the future, given Po’s level. “The last time the river was low was 2003,” he told Nation World News. “This time it’s very, very bad. It’s not raining, it’s not snowing and the temperature is high,” he said. “The famous perfect storm has been created. We are in an extreme crisis.”

"Extreme crisis": Italian Parmesan cheese producers fear for their future amid drought

Production of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is seen at a site near Mantova.

If it doesn’t rain – and no significant rain is forecast in the near future – things will only get worse. In the city of Milan, Italy’s financial center, the mayor has ordered the closure of all decorative fountains and banned private vehicles from washing or watering gardens and lawns.

In the small town of Castenaso near Bologna, barbers and barbers are forbidden from washing their customers’ hair twice, in an effort to save water before the supply runs out.

Meanwhile, a severe heat wave has hit most of southern Italy since May.

Scientists consider the Mediterranean region to be the hot spot of the climate crisis. Man-made, the crisis has made heat waves more frequent and intense, and there has been less rainfall in the summer.

Temperatures are expected to be 20% to 50% above the global average, and droughts will worsen by mid-century, even as the world reduces its greenhouse gas emissions. If emissions remain too high, droughts and wildfires will become so severe that it will be difficult to continue farming. Tourism will also be less attractive.

Italy is a net exporter of food, supplying products such as wheat to many developing countries. Drought in this country only exacerbates a food crisis that is being felt strongly in the world’s poorest regions. And the Po River means a lot to Italians.

Author Tobias Jones, whose book “The Po – An Elegy for Italy’s Longest River” traces the history of the river and explores it thoroughly to capture its importance. They say that Po is to Italy what the Thames is to London or the Mississippi is to the United States.

“For centuries, the concern was that the river would overflow on its banks, but climate change has put the river at risk of drying up,” he tells Nation World News.

“It’s not just a river, it’s part of the national psyche. Its border cities attract tourism and industry. It was almost a moat for central Italy that protected it from invaders. Now it’s a threat and no one else.” don’t know.” What do you do to save it?

Nation World News’s Angela Dewan and Chad Myers contributed to this report.