Risotto rice production in Italy’s Po River valley is under serious threat as a historic drought continues to see rice paddies go bone dry and become toxic salt.

Farmers say the crops of the rice used for risotto can be damaged for years by the increased salt content seeping into the soil.

“As you can see, the situation is tragic, because we are talking about a loss of almost 60%,” says rice grower Elisa Moretto. “These losses are not final yet because in addition to the saltwater problem, we also have the problem of the enormous heat.”

“The 2022 crop is in danger,” she added, saying rice plants may not even be able to make an ear and ripen this year due to the extreme conditions.

Rice plants in Italy’s northern Po River Basin depend on water from aquifers. These are becoming saltier as the Po River is at a historic low, allowing more seawater to flow into the delta.

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The amount of water in the Po River — the largest in Italy — reached just 95 cubic meters (3,350 cubic feet) per second last month, due to drought caused by a lack of snowmelt and seasonal rain.

This water level is one tenth of the annual average.

Moretto, owner of the Moretto Agricultural Society, warned that these environmental problems could have a lasting effect.

“A big problem for us is also that if salt stays on the ground, we risk losing future crops because a salt field doesn’t give any yield, it burns all kinds of plants and crops sown,” she said. “Besides the short-term damage, we’re dealing with everything that’s considered future damage.”

The Po Valley, which accounts for almost a third of Italy’s agricultural production, is facing an unprecedented drought.

The water levels of the River Po running through the region are 2 meters (7ft) lower than average, while temperatures are 3.5 degrees higher in June. These environmental extremes are the result of human-induced climate change.

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It has been almost two months since rice farmers in the Po Valley were unable to tap fresh water for agriculture, which had huge consequences for their businesses.

Moretto hoped her company could save a third of their crop this year. But she wondered if it was possible to make a profit, because other factors, such as higher fuel and fertilizer costs, also have an effect.

“I cannot determine the economic loss,” she said, referring to how the price of fertilizer had increased from 40 to 120 euros per 100 kg.

Rodolfo Laurenti, deputy director of the Po Delta Drainage Consortium, told reporters that the salinity in the waters of the Po River is well above levels suitable for agriculture.

“Right now we record the value of 21 grams of salt per liter of water,” he said. “This value is very high and not suitable for agricultural water distribution, as the maximum limit is 1 gram of salt per liter,” he says.

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The effects of the drought could last for many years to come, as saltwater washes inland over previously unrecorded distances and seeps into aquifers — underground rock layers that can hold water.

The River Po is fed by a delta, an area where fresh and salt water is exchanged. However, with the river at historic lows, more saltwater flows upstream, causing the region’s salinity problems.

According to Giancarlo Mantovani, director of the Po Delta drainage consortium, this will cause “permanent damage”.

“If the saltwater gets into the groundwater…it takes years and huge amounts of freshwater to remove it,” he said, describing the problem as an “environmental problem.”

“The vegetation on the riverbanks, amphibians and birds are gone, and the whole ecosystem that lives around a freshwater environment, like we had in this area, is gone,” he says.

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