Epic drought leads to both innovation and pollution in Spain

MADRID -- As Spain falls deeper into recession and drought, farmers and researchers work together to innovate and diversify farming practices.
Written by Jennifer Riggins, Contributor

MADRID--Spain's driest winter in over 70 years has economists and agriculturalists alike nervous.

As if Spain doesn't have enough economic problems right now, it is in desperate need of rain. Last week, the Ministry of Agriculture announced that the already drought-prone country has only had 14 percent of the average rainfall in the last year. The little rain that's fallen isn't even penetrating the bone-dry ground. This makes innovation in crop irrigation, as well as diversification of crops, even more dire.

In a study released earlier this year by the Polytechnic University of Cartegena, researchers argued that, if current patterns continue, average rainfall will decrease and drought conditions will worsen by 15 percent. Spain started 2011 with reservoir levels at almost 78 percent capacity. After a dry summer, followed by an even drier winter, the reservoirs are now only filled to 62 percent capacity. Eighty percent of the reservoir water is used in farming. In fact, since the 1980s--which happen to be the start of the modern industrialization of Spain--all drought trends "have intensified."

In order to combat these worrying numbers, the centuries-old Spanish agro tradition is looking to innovate. In 2011, there were 109 trials at 81 different farms, with monitoring of both woody and fruit and vegetable plants, focusing on new varieties and cultivation techniques that were suggested as a result of various research and experimentation. This is a big step for Spain, because, before last year, almost all of the funding for Information and Communication Technology in agriculture was private, but much of 2011's tests were publicly-funded in coordination with some of Spain's top public and private universities.

"The aim of the collaborating farms program is to promote technological innovation, while helping farmers to evaluate new techniques and plant materials that could create profitable alternatives," said Angel Garcia Lidon, the director of the Spanish Agro-Food Industry and Agricultural Training. It is also to promote communication and sharing of experiences among the farms.

Last December, the European Union committed to moving funding from agricultural subsidies to support industry growth, innovation and job creation. Falling within EU guidelines, by funding technological research, instead of bailing out failing sectors--perhaps with the exception of the banking industry--is crucial to Spain receiving more EU funding to help pull out of the recession.

Many of the tests were focused on artichokes and apricots, which are seen as less traditionally-Spanish crops, but are still popular foods here. In regions such as Madrid, barely a drop of rain has fallen in months, and these are more durable plants, better accustomed to droughts. For the apricots, many of the farms are applying different styles of pruning, which are mainly used in apple and pear trees. Artichokes are good because they need less water.

In Murcia, research was conducted to see if organic fertilizers and bio-fertilizers could enhance the growth of the Santa Rosa plum. In nearby Guadalentin, researchers and farmers are collaborating to develop new types of cut flowers--gerbers and lisanthius flowers--in oder to diversify the market. All around Spain, they are testing different types of cherries, in order to determine which varieties that flourish can be commercially appealing.

Alas, since this is Spain, where the two most important crops are olives and grapes. In Andalusia, they predict that they could lose 35 percent in the 2012 olive harvest.

One focus is to create better seedless grapes. Of course, the seed-free type exists here, but isn't popular, as the Spanish swear that the seeds provide much richer flavor for both table and wine grapes. Even when they must cram 12 grapes in their mouth as the clock strikes 12 on "nochevieja" (New Year's Eve,) most Spanish choose the challenge of the seeds over risking a less flavorful "uva."

"Most wineries also seem to be producing the wrong type of wine, (like) cheap table wine, when the rest of the world has moved on, and is producing more and more interesting, higher quality terroir-driven wines," said Fabio Bartolomei, co-owner of the small organic bodega Vinos Ambiz. Bartolomei is an advocate of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," in the world's third largest wine producer. He thinks the trick is advocating more traditional techniques that have less of an environmental impact, while experimenting with different varieties of grapes.

"I'm diversifying by buying in organic grapes from growers who I know and trust, and who either have too many grapes to process themselves or who just grow and don't make wine at all. In the future I may take on more vineyards and grow the grapes myself," Bartomolei continued. "I can expand and diversify the variety of grapes is by buying in."

Beyond it's effect on the already struggling farming industry and the dried up rivers, there are other economic implications of the dryness. Stocks continue to plummet in the hydropower industry. Spain was on the forefront of renewable energy, but, due to the stumbling economy and the lack of rain, Spain cannot invest much further into this resource. Now companies must rely on more expensive coal- and gas-burning power generators.

A lack of grass is also dramatically raising the costs to farmers in animal feed.

In addition, cities with seemingly endlessly-growing levels of pollution, like Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao and Sevilla, have even higher levels due to the lack of rainfall. In fact, between the poor city planning and the dry weather, the World Health Organization has said that 87 percent of the Spanish population breathes "polluted air."

"In Spain, the process of industrialization and urbanization has degraded quality, particularly in urban centers. It is crucial to reinforce the public’s capacity for action against atmospheric pollution and to take decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with integrated health, environmental and climate change policies," said Luis Jiménez, the director of the Observatory of Sustainability in Spain, in his interview "Spanish cities far from sustainable," featured on IPS.

Finally, the low rain- and snowfall has led to an increase in forest fires, especially in the wooded province of Galicia.

Spain can only pray for rain, but it can certainly invest more in research and innovation.

Photo: Besnard-Javaudin

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards