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Spain: Climate change forces changes in harvest cycles

"Agricultural producers continue to look at the sky hoping for rain, as they did thousands of years ago," assures Miguel, a Murcia-based producer who believes that, despite current advances, water is still an essential commodity in the form of rainfall or through irrigation.

For years, drought cycles have been becoming more frequent, so some experts are already talking about climate change as a reality. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been developing studies and evaluation reports outlining the effects. Other works, such as the Life Agri Adapt project, of May this year, explain the effects for Europe, specifically for Mediterranean agricultural regions, which will be especially affected by rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall, which will be torrential or in the form of hail.

One of the main problems which much of Spain is facing, according to the professor of the Polytechnic University of Madrid and vice-president of the Spanish Association of Conservation Agriculture. Living Soils (AEAC.SV), Rafael Espejo, is the increase of soil erosion and loss of soil quality. Currently, climate change affects agricultural yields by between 32% and 39%.

Loss of soil and erosion
In many areas with monoculture, mainly of olive trees, vines or fruit, around 13.5 tonnes per hectare may be lost on average every year, although in the case of dryland herbaceous crops, this could rise up to 30.53 tonnes. According to data from the AEAC.SV, it takes more than 30 years to recover lands lost in 12 months.

This accumulation of unfavourable circumstances, coupled with a lack of water, is forcing producers to change their sowing and harvesting habits, always depending on the type of crop, advancing their production schedules or betting on short cycle varieties to be able to harvest twice.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Food and Environment (Mapama) doesn't have any consolidated statistics yet, although researchers are becoming increasingly more interested in finding new varieties that are more resistant to drought, or in the setting up of fruit plantations and vineyards at high altitudes. Agrarian organizations point out that many producers who choose to switch to other crops do so in order to obtain higher yields.

Ignacio Lorite, a senior researcher at the Andalusian Institute for Agricultural Research and Training, Fisheries, Food and Organic Production (Ifapa), explains that we should make a distinction between climate and weather, although the decrease in rainfall has been constant for years, so he is more in favour of it calling global change rather than climate change, which is characterised by the lower availability of water and in which other factors also play a role, such as the rising prices of energy for irrigation and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) regarding prices and subsidies.

Water stress studies
For years, the Life+Climagri project has been working on the identification of the impact and has carried out studies on water stress and temperature increases to see how the crop behaves both during the flowering and ripening. The stronger the heat, the earlier the ripening takes place.

In extensive crops, such as maize, which serves very well as a tester, the planting period has been advanced by approximately one month. This helps avoid thermal stress during the flowering and less watering is needed. "Given that the winters are not as cold, the risk of frost is reduced and the harvest takes place before the months of July and August, which in turn helps save water," adds Lorite.

In woody crops, the flowering period (May and June) tends to be advanced with the use of early varieties. But as far as olive trees are concerned, Lorite points out that the problem is more complicated, because this tree needs cold for the flowering to take place. Currently, Ifapa is working with more than 600 varieties worldwide available at the World Germplasm Bank.

However, in some areas of the Lower Guadalquivir Valley, where weather forecasts point to an increase in temperatures over the next few years, alternatives are being sought to replace olive trees with citrus trees, which don't need as much cold.

In Castile-La Mancha and Andalusia, hectares of cereal are being replaced by almonds and pistachios, but above all, marginal rainfed almond trees are removed and replaced by irrigated varieties, whose yield is ten times higher.

There are also other initiatives, such as the one carried out by Nufri to expand its production of stone fruit trees to Soria, which seek both to exploit new growing areas and to take advantage of the more favourable climatic conditions, in this case thanks to the altitude, looking for the contrast between cold and sun. Nevertheless, the company clarifies that the project is not new and aims to promote a branded product, differentiated from the rest, called Livinda.

All the changes being made to the cultivation processes sometimes leads to overlaps in the production of certain crops, which lead to oversupply and cause prices to fall. "In these cases, we are forced to withdraw products from the market," says the president of COAG-Murcia, Miguel Padilla, who affirms that all these changes can distort the market.

Padilla, who belongs to a family of agricultural producers, recalls that what was planted 25 years ago has nothing to do with what is being sown now. "We planted cotton, cereals, alfalfa or peppers. Today, we produce artichoke, broccoli, lettuce, pepper or stone fruit," he added.

Regarding the weather, he confirms that the drought cycles "used to be recorded every eight years, and now we see them every two years. I don't know if this is climate change or a climate disorder. In a single week, we have had damage from flooding, hail, frost and drought," he stresses.

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