A harvest of bounty
Spurred by European
olive-oil subsidies, intensive farming in Spain is stressing both
soil and wildlife.
| Special to The Christian Science Monitor
SPAIN - Gregorio Lopez is not about to let falling wholesale
olive oil prices drive him out of business. He has whipped his olive
groves in southern Spain into high-production mode: replanting trees
closer together, removing extraneous vegetation, adding irrigation
systems, and trying to perfect his pesticide regime.
"There's a commercial war in the olive business," he says,
inspecting the trees that have been in his family for generations
here in the rolling Andalusian hills. "And the only way to compete
is to raise production."
Driving the competition is a European Union policy that provides
a subsidy based on volume - the more you produce, the more subsidy
you get. The resulting production boom has driven down prices,
encouraging even more-intensive farming to maintain profits.
It has also increased soil erosion, water usage, and pesticide
contamination in an area so environmentally sensitive that experts
estimate that 20 percent of Spain is turning into a desert.
With similar problems across many European countries, the EU
olive-oil subsidy has become a focal point for those hoping to bring
Europe's agricultural policies in line with its stated goals of
Pressure at the November WTO meeting to decouple agriculture
subsidies from production volume may eventually increase the
political will for change. The European Union has already
disconnected beef supports from production output and made other
changes in the Common Agricultural Policy, which also governs the
olive-oil subsidy. But under agriculture industry pressure, the EU
recently voted to postpone further discussion of the olive-oil
subsidy until 2003.
The issue of soil degradation has gained additional visibility
with a recent UN-European Union report describing it as the
continent's "silent disaster." "The sustainable use of soils is one
of Europe's greatest environmental, social, and economic
challenges," says United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)
executive director Klaus Töpfer.
As Europe's forests were cut down over the centuries for fuel,
housing, and crop-growing, erosion was kept at bay through
traditional farming techniques, maintenance of sufficient ground
cover, and labor-intensive practices such as terraced fields.
But following World War II, as Europe lifted itself from post-war
basket case to economic powerhouse, an agricultural policy focused
single-mindedly on increasing food production has encouraged the
growth of high-intensity monoculture and seriously threatened the
continued fertility of the continent's soil.
One of the most dramatic consequences of poor soil maintenance is
desertification, a problem that afflicts, within Europe, the
Mediterranean countries of Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece.
The four nations recently joined the UN Convention to Combat
Desertification, an organization originally intended to help
countries like those in Saharan Africa.
When rains do come, soil with poor ground cover is often unable
to absorb it, and instead is often washed away. Last year, soil
erosion caused the worst floods in centuries in Britain. In 1999,
the Italian Ministry for the Environment reported that it had
classified more than half of Italy as in danger of erosion, after a
decade with almost 3,000 landslides. Nearly 80 percent of European
farmland will be at risk of soil erosion by 2050, according to UNEP,
and within 20 years, another 3.8 million households are expected to
be built within flood-prone areas.
Wildlife is endangered as well. With only 2 percent of Europe's
wild forests remaining, farmland has become the primary habitat for
animal life. Only rarely the direct target of farmers looking to
protect their crops, animals such as the Iberian lynx are dying out
as modern farming techniques jeopardize their habitats.
"Soil degradation is part of the systematic abuse of the European
space, its territory, and the natural resources involved," says
Domingo Jiménez Beltrán, executive director of the European
Environment Agency. But for now, there is no action taken at the
European Community level to combat soil degradation, as there is for
air and water contamination.
In the Andalusian region of Jaen, where Ubeda is located, the
olive tree has taken over virtually all available land. With the
neighboring Córdoba region, the area produces 40 percent of the
world's olive oil. From the air, the land looks like a big corduroy
quilt, with the green rows of olive trees standing out against the
bare brown soil.
On modern olive plantations, heavy use of pesticides kills off
insects, which keeps away birds. Groundcover and hedges, which offer
a habitat for ground-dwelling animals, are removed to make tractor
harvesting easier. The imprint of the mechanized plantations is
clear in soil degradation, as well. The Spanish Ministry of
Agriculture estimates that 80 million metric tons of soil are lost
yearly off the 1 million hectares of olive plantations in Andalusia
Farmland must play a more complex role than just plots that
produce food, says Giovanna Pisano, agriculture policy officer for
Birdlife International, a non-profit studying the impact of European
agricultural policy on bird populations. "The CAP has pushed
intensification and monoculture on farmland for the last 30 years,"
she says, "but traditional agriculture and mixed farming is
absolutely fundamental to preserving the majority of wildlife in
Many experts say what will most likely spur the EU into action on
subsidies is its planned expansion in East Europe. "You start
handing out cash to Polish and Hungarian farmers," says Pisano, "and
the EU budget will go totally out of control."