Ecuador breathes sigh of relief as El Niño impact proves less severe than anticipated

El Nino word cloud

SS-eq-1

Climatologists predict the 2015-16 El Niño – the local warming of surface waters in the entire equatorial zone of the central and eastern Pacific Ocean – could be one of the strongest on record. With agriculture representing one of the main sectors of the economy that could be severely affected by this weather phenomenon, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and Ecuador marking one of the countries located at the centre of the event, Produce Business UK considers El Niño’s potential impact on Ecuador’s 2016 supply

At the end of last year, the FAO published its latest global report on El Niño, the weather episode which occurs every two to seven years. The organisation even has a dedicated website to the phenomenon; detailing the latest news, publications and information on affected areas.

Characterised by the FAO as “persistent warmer than average sea surface temperatures and consistent changes in wind and rainfall patterns”, El Niño’s main threat to agricultural crops is drought. 

Normal conditions vs El Nino conditions

However, the phenomenon – which usually peaks late in the calendar year, although the effects can persist well into the following spring – can produce other climatic impacts, including flash floods or intense hurricanes that could influence the crop season; disrupting agricultural activities and damaging crops.

Severe droughts and significant flooding in many parts of the world have already been attributed to the 2015-16 El Niño. In particular, it has been deemed responsible for a reduced monsoon period in India, a weakened the Atlantic hurricane season and it has played a role in the early 2015 winter storms across Northern Europe.

In the UK, the Met Office declared 2015 as the warmest on record thanks to a combination of global warming and a strong El Niño. The World Meteorological Organization also agrees with other agencies around the world that 2015 will rank as the globe’s new hottest year on record, partly thanks to El Niño. 

Global weather conditions during El Nino

Effects for Ecuador

So, what about Ecuador? While the weather conditions are certainly not playing out as normal, it appears the phenomenon is having less of a serious impact that initially expected.

Francisco Mena, the UK trade commissioner for Ecuador’s promotional body for exports and investment, ProEcuador, explains that El Niño affects all South American countries, as well as Central America, which experiences the opposite effect called La Niña – essentially a drought.

“Ecuador and Peru have already experienced some impact – we’re in the starting process,” he explains. “The rainfall hasn’t been high but right now there’s an increase in temperature, which affects flowering and fruiting. The critical months are February to April when there is more rainfall than normal.”

Mena explains that although the air temperature may only rise by 1-3oC the change can have a big effect on some of Ecuador’s fresh produce lines, like mangoes, while shifts in rainfall patterns can impact bananas, papayas and pineapples.

According to Mena, the last really strong El Niño in Ecuador was in 1997, which affected productivity and yields on farms. He recalls that some crops were affected more than others – cutting productivity by as much as 30-40% in some cases.

“Some say the 2015-16 event could be the same as the last one in 1997 because the air temperature is much higher,” he suggests. “But no one really knows how strong it will be. Certainly, we will have an El Niño year but we can’t predict how strong it will be. The impact will depend on the region, and some products are more susceptible than others.”

Fortunately, Bernardo Malo, who heads up the Ecuadorian Mango Foundation (Fundación Mango) claims the impact of El Niño on the country’s mango industry has been much lower than expected so far.

“Temperatures have certainly been warmer than usual but no early rainfall occurred, as was forecasted,” he explains. “Warm temperatures did impact the flowering stage of the mango trees, especially the Kent variety. As a consequence, the volume for Kent mangoes [for the 2015/16 season] is lower than usual.”

With that in mind, the Ecuadorian Mango Foundation estimates a reduced volume of 150,000 cartons of Kent mangoes will be shipped to the UK during 2015/16.

In this article published on Produce Business UK, Eduardo Ledesma, president of AEBE, Ecuador’s banana exporters’ association, also emphasises that compared with original scientific predictions, El Niño has to date not been as strong as anticipated for Ecuador.

He claims the effects on the country’s banana production have been less serious, meaning the forecast for Ecuador’s 2016 banana exports will remain comparable to 2015 at some 5.37 million tonnes.

AEBE’s Ledesma points out that national and regional governments are also working to minimise the impact of El Niño weather conditions on Ecuador’s road infrastructure, a statement that is echoed by Mena at ProEcuador.

“In Ecuador we have schemes that will help to avoid flooding,” Mena states. “The government has invested in multi-purpose projects, including in excess of US$800 million (almost £555m) for those areas that are more at risk, such as all the coastline, to help prevent the impact. Ecuador is a small country so [El Niño] it’ll affect all of it.”

Other nations at risk

In the meantime, Mena predicts Peru’s northern fresh produce business is perhaps headed for more complications than Ecuador. “Peru is more at risk I’d say,” he claims. “Most of Peru’s agribusiness production is based in the north of the country, from Lima north to Piura, where they grow table grapes, avocados, peppers, bananas, artichokes and asparagus, among the most important crops.”

“As I mentioned, in some products, just an increase in air temperature can affect the flowering process – the stage from which the fruit is produced. It really affects mangoes and artichokes. For artichoke production, temperatures need to go up and down during the day. If it doesn’t go down it doesn’t stimulate growth.”

Neighbouring Colombia, which supplies a range of tropical and exotic fruits, is also at the peril of El Niño, according to Mena, who concludes on a resilient tone by saying: “Those are the risks of agribusiness – you are never free from weather-related risks”.

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