Is the future of Italy tropical? Why Sicilian farmers are trading olives for papayas (2024)

The rolling hills of Sicily, once a patchwork of sun-dappled citrus groves and ancient olive trees, have long been the heart of Italy’s iconic agricultural landscape. Underneath the cerulean sky, fields of golden wheat sway in the warm breeze, and the scent of blooming lemon blossoms fills the air in spring.

Yet this picturesque scene is undergoing a dramatic transformation. As climate change accelerates, shifting weather patterns are slowly reshaping these verdant landscapes into something altogether unexpected: a tropical paradise. Facing rising temperatures and increasingly unpredictable rainfall, some Sicilian farmers are trading their traditional crops for exotic fruits like mangoes, avocados, bananas, and papayas, heralding a new era in Italian agriculture.

Sicily may be just the first European region to grapple with an expanding tropical climate, showing the rest of the continent what it means to adapt to a changing planet.

A changing landscape

In the heart of Messina, a town on the northeast tip of Sicily, a worrisome rise in average temperature of about 4°F has unfolded over the past 50 years. There, an enthusiastic local grower tends to his lush property that now resembles a tropical forest.

"We used to grow lemons and olives," Pietro Coccia reminisces, "but the soil and climate have changed. Now, we cultivate mangoes, avocados, and even papayas."

In recent years, extreme weather in Italy and throughout the Mediterranean has caused drops in olive oil production, and wine grapes in Sicily are increasingly damaged by drought and wildfires.

While some farmers are pivoting to new crops, scientists are studying ways to preserve current staples. Local universities in Sicily are testing resilient crop varieties capable of withstanding extreme weather conditions. They hope to preserve vital wheat and grain crops that would otherwise succumb to a warming climate.

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"We have tested over 2,000 wheat varieties in different parts of Sicily, including ancient ones that promote biodiversity. This experiment aims to identify productive seeds for various regions and adaptability to climate change," explains Paolo Caruso, an agronomist and consultant at the department of agriculture, food, and environment at the University of Catania.

Crops developed for future use will need to be capable of withstanding a hotter, dryer climate.

As rain becomes scarce and temperatures rise, plants increasingly whither and die, exposing a bare layer of soil that’s eroded by wind and washed away by occasional rainfall. Over time, soils become less fertile, a process known as desertification.

Approximately 70 percent of Sicily’s territory is at risk of desertification due to rising temperatures, water scarcity, and soil degradation.

“It’s comparable to sustaining third-degree burns on 70 percent of our body. Such a condition would be fatal for a human being," explains Professor Christian Mulder of Catania University.

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Additionally, scientists are developing innovative fertilizers tailored to areas ravaged by drought.

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“We recycle sulfur, an important soil element found in waste from oil refining. By combining it with citrus processing waste, abundant in Sicily, as well as bentonite clay, we enable the soil to effectively absorb [nutrients].,” says Giovanni Calamarà, CEO of SBS Steel Belt Systems.

How changing food changes culture

Against this backdrop, cultural transformations are occurring as communities break away from the legacies of their ancestors and prepare for an uncertain future.

Francesco Verri grows exotic fruits and has established a network of small-scale growers specializing in various lesser-known tropical fruits. His vision is to create a new "Made in Sicily" exotic fruits brand that raises awareness about climate change among everyday consumers. Additionally, he is collaborating with chefs to integrate tropical fruits into Sicily’s rich local culinary traditions.

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The feijoa flower, a highly sought-after exotic fruit, has edible petals prized for their versatility in the kitchen, particularly co*cktails.

Photograph by Jean-Marc & Valentina

Giuseppe Saitta, a renowned chef from Messina who works in tandem with Verri, is similarly pushing the boundaries of culinary experimentation by using exotic fruits as key ingredients in traditional dishes. In a recent creation, he prepared a ratatouille using locally grown papaya and macadamia nuts sourced from nearby farmers.

"The challenge is to preserve the essence of Sicilian cuisine while embracing new ingredients that our changing climate forces upon us," Saitta says.

Climate change is also dwindling the region’s water supplies. A water crisis at Lake Pozzillo in eastern Sicily is reaching a critical point as the dam records historically low water levels. Currently, the reservoir holds less than 211.9 million cubic feet of water, a striking contrast to its total capacity of approximately 5.32 billion. Compounding the issue, the meager water resources are unable to reach farmers in the Catania Plain due to deteriorated pipelines.

The impact of these changes extends beyond agriculture into the social fabric of Sicilian communities.

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Catenanuova, a small town in the province of Enna, has held the record for the highest temperature ever recorded in Europe since the late 1990s, with a scorching 119°F. However, this record was surpassed by half a degree in 2021 when Syracuse reached a very slightly hotter 119°F.

As farms become less viable, populations in this tourist paradise are dwindling, as residents seek opportunities elsewhere. Amidst the evident pressures of climate change, Sicily is grappling with significant depopulation. Since 2011, the population has declined by more than 200,888, a drop of four percent. Contributing factors include an aging population and low birth rates, but many young people are leaving for better job opportunities in northern Italy and abroad.

"For the past 30 years, I have owned this bar, but the current situation is disheartening. The work opportunities have fallen, and the younger generation is fleeing, only the elderly remain," says Catenanuova local Donatella Mirabella. "In Catenanuova, where we used to have 5,000 residents, now only 2,000 remain. It feels like a deserted place."

Is the future of Italy tropical? Why Sicilian farmers are trading olives for papayas (2024)
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