Future of Fig: Climate Change

Fresh Fig
Dried Fig
Published Aug 11, 2023
Prolonged droughts, shifting rainfall patterns, and water scarcity brought on by climate change are wreaking havoc on global food production, bringing hardships to the agricultural sector. This leads to supply shortages and price hikes, exacerbating global food insecurity. Although fig trees, from which figs are picked, are considered highly resistant to climate change, studies show reduced yield is expected from prolonged drought, rising temperatures, and increasing pest outbreaks. This could impact both future fresh figs and dried fig supplies.

Figs are seemingly untouched by the detrimental effects of climate change. They are considered one of the first cultivated plants dating back 11,400 years ago and are an integral part of Mediterranean agricultural history. It takes around two to six years for the trees to start producing figs, and they must be harvested when fully ripened as they stop their ripening process when they are picked. Brown turkey figs, one of the easier varieties to grow, are harvested twice a year. The first harvest occurs at the end of July to mid-August, and the next harvest is in mid-September to mid-October. Due to its short shelf life of one week, most figs are consumed in dried, pickled, and jam forms. Unlike the fig fruit’s delicate and perishable nature, fig trees are highly resistant, having survived centuries of ecological and environmental changes. This was due to their high adaptability to extreme weather and diverse environments.

Although figs thrive under warm and well-drained soil, they can adapt to drought-prone areas, can tolerate dry soil, and require relatively low maintenance. Brown Turkey and Chicago Hardy, the most common and consumed fig varieties, are exceptionally sturdy. They recover well, even after a prolonged winter period, and resist the most common fig pests and diseases. In addition to their high adaptability, fig’s carbon sequestering capabilities, self-fertilizing ability, and minimal environmental impact make them an ideal candidate for sustainable agriculture.

However, this does not make figs completely impervious to climate change effects. While they are resilient, the shifting climate and abnormal weather conditions such as prolonged drought and increasing temperature are major stressors to fig production. A study published in the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI) found that the combined effects of increasing temperature and lowered precipitation led to a 25% decrease in fig yield in the North African regions. This is especially concerning to global fig production.

The Mediterranean region, where 70% of the global fig production comes from, is one of the most climate-vulnerable regions in the world. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Mediterranean region will warm 20% faster than the global average, and an increase of 2°C to 4°C will reduce precipitation by 10% to 15%. Future projections show that increased drought in the Mediterranean will affect various crop production, including fig.

NASA’s Global Climate Change Projections in the Year 2100

Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

MDPI also found that increased pest infections fostered by climate change were contributing to the lower yield. Across the 52 communes investigated, the number of communes recording an outbreak of pest increased from one in 2011 to 15 in 2022. The pests, which include fungi and insects, inflict wounds, spread infections, and cause stem and root rotting, tremendously stressing the trees. The study indicated that climate change will only increase pest outbreaks and worsen the situation.

Another factor to consider is the effect of climate change on fig pollinators. While fig trees may be adaptable to rising temperatures, fig wasps are not. Figs' outer shell makes it easy to be mistaken as fruits. However, they are an inflorescence, an inverted bloom of small flowers and require the help of fig wasps to pollinate them. Unlike other plants and flowers, each fig variety can only be pollinated by a specific corresponding wasp species. They depend on each other to complete their life cycle, a form of symbiotic relationship called obligate mutualism.

A recent study by Uppsala University found that rising temperatures reduce the lifespan of fig wasps. When it reached 36°C, the wasps only lived from two to ten hours compared to their normal life span of two to three days. This reduced lifespan is concerning as without the wasps, fig trees cannot pollinate. As alarming as the new study is, it is unlikely this will lead to the end of all figs as some fig varieties are self-pollinating and do not require the help of wasps.

The findings in these studies shed light on the vulnerabilities of the once thought indestructible ancient plant. Although climate change does not affect figs to the degree of other food products, worsening climate conditions will push fig trees to their breaking point and lead to lower yield. Thus, it is important to understand the effect climate change will have on fig trees to better prepare farmers in improving their farming strategies and technology.

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