SEO BIRDLIFE

Farmers speak: How are they living through this unprecedented scenario in the sector?

Harvesting, fishing, hunting. The first men and women were nomads, tied to the luck of finding or not finding food. And it was a seemingly simple initiative that forever changed the course of nascent civilizations. Agriculture led to settlement and the growth of scattered populations, giving rise to other activities that laid the foundations of humanity: animal husbandry, trade, culture, history.

Today, with nearly 8 billion people in the world, agriculture is now conceived as an industry aimed at ensuring food security. However, should we treat a sector that depends directly on soil and climate as if it were a factory?

Just take a look at the current state of the sector to see that agriculture is at a critical juncture. Low yields, severe droughts, unprecedented prices that do not benefit farmers, and an increasingly uncertain future threaten the stability of this activity. Consequences directly related to climate change and the misuse of agricultural practices that, under a purely productivity-oriented approach, have disconnected the sector from its greatest ally: nature.

Crops, of any kind, develop and depend on an agroecosystem where the interconnection with natural elements, flora, and fauna, is in balance. In fact, Olivares Vivos has shown that biodiversity and nature-based solutions enhance the resilience of olive groves, do not affect productivity, and increase profitability. An agricultural model, already adopted by 38 farms and 17 partners from 3 olive cooperatives, has demonstrated that working in harmony with nature is much more profitable than working against it. Especially in such adverse scenarios as today’s.

Therefore, on days like today, commemorating World Agriculture Day, Olivares Vivos has wanted to hear from the main protagonists of this event to understand how they are experiencing this unprecedented context in the olive and olive oil sector. On this occasion, Rafael Alonso, manager of the Oro del Desierto brand (Tabernas, Almería), and Juan Miguel Retamar, from Aceites Retamar (Guareña, Badajoz), will speak up for the countryside.

 

 

The Olive Grove Facing Climate Change

Located in Europe’s most important biodiversity hotspot, the cultivation of olive trees is crucial for protecting and restoring Mediterranean flora and fauna. But that’s not all. The unique characteristics of this tree make it an excellent ally in combating climate crises, whether through its capacity to absorb CO2 as a carbon sink or by forming an agroecosystem that, with proper management, contributes to nature’s balance. However, despite this potential and its resilience against high temperatures and dry climates, olive groves are increasingly suffering from the consequences of climate change.

At this point, the manager of Oro del Desierto believes it’s likely that climate change is outpacing agriculture’s ability to adapt, especially because “not all areas have access to water, which is an essential resource, as well as proper use of it, to adapt to this change.” Therefore, he believes that only farmers who find solutions at the production and valorization levels of their products “will be able to endure; the rest will find it very difficult.”

At Aceites Retamar, Juan Miguel shares a very similar perspective regarding the use of natural resources. In fact, he emphasizes that agriculture requires caring for the environment in which it operates, leading to “responsible management of natural resources, which demands continuous adaptation to the reality we face.” However, he disagrees on the sector’s adaptive capacity to climate change, stating that, as fast as its evolution may be, he does not believe it will “outpace” agriculture’s adaptation. “I know many operations that have successfully adapted through responsible planning and management,” he adds.

 

The drought, irregular precipitation patterns, and rising temperatures

Before, it was a recurring theme during the summer months. Now, drought, erratic rainfall, and rising temperatures dominate the news almost year-round. And for good reason. The climate changes underway are endangering agriculture at all levels. Therefore, extrapolating and quoting one of the great naturalists in history, ‘it is not the strongest species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most adaptable to change.’ This is demonstrated by these two olive growers who advocate for innovation and nature-based solutions to confront this new climatic reality.

‘On our farm, we have been using deficit and precision irrigation for over 27 years, but we are seeing more and more episodes of heavy rainfall concentrated in short periods. Here, we play with these variables and use smart software to design strategies that are as water-efficient as possible to ensure at least a reasonable production. Additionally, we have been managing ground cover on our farms for years,’ explains Rafael. He details that they maintain herbaceous cover during autumn and winter; in spring, they partially clear it to prevent competition with the olive trees, and in summer, they combine mechanical clearing with mowing using horses in the remaining parts of the estate. ‘Managing ground cover, like any agricultural practice, has its pros and cons at a production level, so proper management allows us to take advantage of its benefits and try to avoid drawbacks,’ he points out.

At Aceites Retamar, they organize their efforts into two main sets of actions to improve productivity and mitigate the current climate situation. Juan Miguel explains, ‘We focus on caring for the plants to help them manage natural resources better. One of these tasks is pruning to minimize damage to the tree and assist in better energy management. Similarly, we put all our efforts into nutrition, opting for organic fertilizers that benefit soil regeneration. On the other hand, we work to prevent environmental degradation, restore biodiversity, and halt soil desertification. Our actions are also part of the LIFE Olivares Vivos + project, in which we participate as an experimental farm. These actions are mostly interdisciplinary, as any regeneration of soil, flora, and fauna will directly impact improving natural resources for olive cultivation”.

 

The Design of the New CAP: More Commitment to the Environment?

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been, since its inception, the primary support tool for the European Union’s agricultural sector. In its early days in the 1960s, its aid primarily focused on improving agricultural productivity to ensure a stable supply of affordable food. However, without losing sight of food security, Europe cannot ignore the need to promote agronomic models where biodiversity and the environment are key focuses. In this regard, our farmers see significant progress in the environmental commitment of the new CAP.

Rafael believes that the CAP is moving towards promoting more environmentally sustainable practices, although he is concerned that changes in other sectors may be more complex. “Olive farming has great opportunities to adapt very well to this policy and take advantage of eco-schemes to obtain complementary aid, and moreover, these practices themselves can benefit the operation,” he points out. Furthermore, he sees eco-schemes as a spearhead for other olive growers to begin transforming their farms towards more sustainable models, as many olive growers are likely applying these measures for the first time under the current CAP and realizing the benefits.

Juan Miguel echoes a similar sentiment, stating that the intention of the new CAP model is undoubtedly to incentivize and promote sustainable practices and biodiversity protection. He explains, “I believe this evolution requires adequate institutional and regulatory support, and the CAP is a perfect tool for that. I understand that implementing proposals within such a complex and diverse framework as the CAP is not easy, and it will require successive adaptations to make it more effective in achieving its goals. Similarly, regarding eco-schemes, I think it’s very appropriate to adopt a model of various and different schemes, providing this initiative with greater flexibility to adapt to the different realities it needs to address.” For this farmer, the new CAP opens a new path towards more sustainable agricultural practices committed to biodiversity, but he emphasizes that it must continue evolving. “From this initial publication, numerous proposals arise that must be considered to make the measure more effective. I believe that’s the direction it should evolve towards. From this promising first step, towards something that responds to all realities and always towards greater protection of our environment.

 

Climate Change and Market: Implications in Olive Oil

The far-reaching effects of climate change extend much further than initially thought. Its consequences are impacting the market, affecting food availability and causing unprecedented price trends. Olive oil is a clear example. Extra virgin olive oil was priced above 8 euros per kilogram last week, whereas just last year it was sold for nearly half that amount. It wasn’t long ago that the lowest prices for extra virgin olive oil in the past decade were reached; cast your mind back to August 2020, when it sold for 1.8 euros per kilogram. What has happened in these three years?

“Costs have risen significantly in raw materials such as diesel, fertilizers, etc… This directly affects olive groves, making production more expensive than it was a few years ago, especially in scenarios of low production. I believe prices could drop below 3 euros again, surely, because if the supply deteriorates combined with a good harvest, it could shift the market once more; just as prices are excessively high now,” reasons Rafael, while adding, “At our mill, we also produce organic oil from estates where we acquire olives for our second brand. Doing this at the current price is very costly. Additionally, if we procure product (seen year-round) it could happen that, if autumn and spring are rainy and favorable, prices could fall, leading to very high economic losses for the industrial sector and selling below acquisition price… It’s a really complex situation, so we’ll have to adapt, be efficient and cautious, and remember that consumers are also part of the chain.”

With eyes also turned to the sky, Juan Miguel believes that until rainfall levels and historical climate cycles are restored, we will face reduced harvests and high-price scenarios. “I think the situation will normalize, I don’t see another option, there will eventually be a proper adjustment of supply and demand that will allow greater stability. But I don’t think we’ll see prices below 3 euros again in the short term, something we did see just three years ago. The current price hike is based on harvest forecasts and demand. As the season progresses, this uncertainty will clear up, and in my opinion, we’ll see prices either stabilize or possibly fall. But always far from the 3-4 euros range we’ve known,” he argues. The manager of Aceites Retamar is clear that to make a turning point, it is necessary to manage natural resources and adapt to the current climate cycle adequately. He concludes, “The current situation contrasts greatly with the very low prices of previous years, which have financially strained farmers, seeing the prices of their crops plummet. I believe we should reflect on the reasons why oil and olives have been undervalued for years. This decline in value has gradually led to the loss of relevance of traditional olive farming and its abandonment. These consequences must be addressed today.”

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CONÓCENOS

La Sociedad Española de Ornitología es la entidad conservacionista decana de España. Desde 1954, sigue teniendo como misión conservar la biodiversidad, con la participación e implicación de la sociedad, siempre con las aves como bandera.

SEO/BirdLife es la representante en España de BirdLife International, una federación que agrupa a las asociaciones dedicadas a la conservación de las aves y sus hábitats en todo el mundo, con representación en más de 100 países y más de 13 millones de socios.

Es el socio coordinador del LIFE Olivares Vivos+.