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Europe: Crops Withering In Searing Heat

This summer's scorching heat and lack of rainfall are prompting predictions across Europe of one of the worst harvests in years. Officials in France, Germany, and the Czech Republic say yields could fall 15 percent to 30 percent this year from last. The European Commission says it's aware of the problem, but says it's too soon to take any immediate action. That message is not likely to be well received by farmers -- many of whom say it's already too late.

Prague, 14 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Journalists sometimes refer to the month of August jokingly as "cucumber season." The idea is that there is nothing to do while everyone is away on holiday -- except perhaps to watch the cucumbers grow.

But this year in Europe threatens to be a cucumber season without many cucumbers -- or wheat or corn, for that matter -- as searing heat and drought threaten agricultural yields across the continent.

Hardest hit appears to be France, Europe's biggest agricultural producer.

Reports say French production of wheat and other grains could fall by as much as 30 percent this year. Livestock is also suffering. The French news agency Agence France Presse says as many as a million chickens died in the past week from the heat.

France, as well as much of the rest of the continent, has been hit by more than a month of daytime temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius -- in some cases up to 40 degrees Celsius -- with little or no rainfall. Cities and towns across the continent from Spain and Britain to Switzerland and Germany in recent days have recorded some of their hottest temperatures ever.

The European Commission in Brussels acknowledges the problem, but says it is too early yet to predict with any certainty the extent of the damage -- and too soon to take any major steps.

Agriculture spokesman Johan Reyniers told RFE/RL, "[The amount of damage varies] from member state to member state. The heat wave is not yet over. For the moment, we cannot make predictions on what the results will be."

He says the Commission nevertheless has authorized some small pre-emptive measures -- such as allowing farmers to use fallow land for grazing -- to help ease the burden.

"We authorized -- in the affected member states -- farmers to use set-aside land for grazing and for feed production. We increased advance payments of the beef premium from 60 percent to 80 percent. We sold out of the intervention stocks [some] rice to be used as animal feed," Reyniers said.

According to Reyniers, on 14 August they will propose "further measures in the cereals sector, and further measures in the beef sector, and we will sell some other cereals out of intervention -- just to show that we take action, in fact."

But some say these measures are too little and are coming too late to help farmers.

Helmut Born of the Berlin office of the German Farmers' Union says farmers in the eastern part of the country -- where the brunt of the heat wave has been felt -- need immediate assistance.

"[The farmers] need now really big support to come along. We made some studies of [the eastern areas of] Brandenburg and Saxon. If there is no understanding for action in the very short run, some of our very good farmers will say, 'That's it, we have to close our [farms].' That's what we really don't want," Born said.

He estimates the German cereals crop nationwide will be about 15 percent lower than normal, with farms in the east of the country losing up to half of their crop. The total damage could run to over 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion).

In Portugal, Spain, and Croatia, the problems of heat wave and drought are compounded by forest fires. Reports say as many as 250,000 hectares of land has been lost to fires, still raging out of control in some areas.

In the Czech Republic, officials are anticipating their worst grain harvest in 25 years -- as river levels fall and taps run dry. The Vltava River -- which only last year experienced the worst flood in a century -- was down this year about 20 percent from normal levels.

Further to the east, the recent weather problems only compound already disastrous harvests foreseen in countries like Ukraine. There, the grain harvest is expected to be a third lower than last year. The blame has been placed on a bad winter and suspected corruption. Food prices have risen as reports come out of an expected bread shortage. The country may have to import more than a million tons of wheat.

The situation in Ukraine is so bad it may even look to Belarus for a helping hand. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said last week in Minsk his country had fared relatively well and can produce more bread than it needs. He said his country is prepared to sell some of it to Ukraine.

The temperatures in some areas are expected to ease later this week and next. But even if cooling rains do come now, in many areas the damage has been done.

Germany's Born says, "Our grain harvest is finished. Maybe [cooler weather] could help a little bit for sugar beets and maybe a bit for silage corn, but not for the normal corn for our feeding mills. The harvest really is diminished in a very severe way."

Born says the risk now is that the damage becomes permanent, as farmers whose crops were burned in the heat close their doors for good. He says as many as a third of them could do just that.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.