As global temperatures rise, crops like apples and pears are starting to feel the heat. While the climate shows no signs of cooling down, farmers in Spain are looking for ways to adapt, and this is starting in the laboratory.
Apple grower David Casadella from the northern Spanish region of Catalonia idly kicks one of the many rotten apples that have fallen to the ground, before plucking another from a tree. “These apples are over-mature,” he says. “When the summer is hotter than it should be, the apples fall down much more easily than usual. There’s maybe 10-15% of apples that are lost.”
He blames the falling yield on climate change. Summer temperatures in Catalonia have risen by 2.5oCelsius since 1950, with more and more tropical nights, where the temperature does not fall below 20oC.
Losing 10-15% of apples is a severe knock to Casadella’s business, but he and other apple growers in the region worry that further rises in temperature could wipe out their livelihoods altogether. As well as causing fruit to mature too quickly, extreme heat can lead to sunburn or discoloration of the apple skins, making them harder to sell in an increasingly competitive market.
Catalan apples feel the heat
Catalonia’s warm climate means the region has always been at the hotter end of the temperature spectrum where apples and pears will grow. Any subtle change can have a big impact on the fruit, and therefore, the farmer.
Between 2002 and 2015, annual apple production across Spain fell from 650,000 to 450,000 tons. Casadella sees his hope for a secure harvest in a high-tech laboratory just five minutes by car from his orchard.
Inside, precision instruments whirr as scientists in white coats record measurements. It’s a world away from the heavy machinery and manual labor of the farm, but the two places share a common goal.
The lab is run by Catalonia’s Institute for Agrifood Research and Technology (IRTA), and is home to the Hot Climate Program, which partnered with growers like Casadella to tackle the challenge of climate change.