Every year, 6% of the value of agricultural production in Spain is lost, i.e. more than 550 million euros. This is the result of the first large informative study, “The countdown is on. Impacts of climate change on Spanish agriculture”, carried out by a farmers’ organization.
Pablo Resco, from the peasant organization COAG, presented the most relevant results of his years of research in the scientific literature on the effects of global warming on Spanish agriculture. Although regional differences may appear, no area is immune to global warming, so it was important to know how the Spanish agricultural sector could be affected in different scenarios. For this reason, the author has analyzed four agricultural systems of great importance for Spain: olive groves, vineyards, cereals and the dehesa*.
The three crops chosen for the study together occupy more than 50% of the cultivated area, are distributed over a large part of the national surface, have great economic importance and are linked to the basic products of Spanish gastronomy and culture. . The dehesa was also included for its high environmental value and its richness in agroforestry resources, key for extensive livestock farming. Through the study, the objective was to see the potential cost of not making the necessary efforts to reduce emissions.
Agriculture and climate change in Spain
The agri-food sector is one of the driving forces of the Spanish economy, representing 5.8% of national GDP (11% if trade is included). It is one of the five most exported sectors in volume and represents, with nearly 60 billion euros, 17% of the total goods exported with a trade surplus of nearly 1% of GDP. But the sector depends on agricultural production threatened by climate change and rising temperatures could trigger a series of effects with major consequences on the agricultural environment and the economy as a whole.
Climate change is one of the great challenges for agriculture and food, as the consequences of rising temperatures could alter the delicate balance in which many crops are grown. This risk is greater in the Mediterranean countries, one of the regions most affected by global warming, and more specifically in Spain, where 75% of its area is already threatened by desertification (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1. Evolution of the aridity index compared to the base period 1971-2000 from pre-industrial levels
Currently, the agricultural insurance loss rate for extreme weather events can result in a loss of at least 6% of the value of agricultural production each year. Climate change would increase the intensity and frequency of these events. In addition, the decrease in vegetation cover due to rising temperatures and reduced rainfall, combined with its concentration in the form of heavy rainfall, could increase soil erosion and further increase the risk of desertification.
- A warming of 1.5°C would lead to a significant drop in yields and production quality in current cultivation areas, but especially in the hotter and drier areas in the south of the peninsula.
- With an increase of 2°C, the damage could be very significant and, for example, endanger the holm oak dehesas in the most western part of Andalusia or Extremadura. Yields of cereals such as wheat could fall by more than 15% in some regions. The area of quality vineyards could be reduced by 20%. And in the case of olive trees, only the picual variety could sustain dryland yields in interior growing areas. However, from a warming of 2.5°C, even the yield of this variety would suffer considerably without water supply. Moreover, the holm oak dehesas could disappear in large parts of the southern half of the country.
- The greatest losses would be associated with increased water stress due to increased evapotranspiration, higher temperatures and lower precipitation. This situation would be accompanied by a higher frequency of droughts, up to 5-10 times higher if they exceed 1.5-2°C. In addition, precipitation would be more intense, leading to erosion, and would be concentrated in periods such as autumn, making the water less usable for agriculture.
- The damage could be further increased by the higher incidence of pests and diseases. In the case of wheat, with an increase of 2°C, current losses could reach up to 60%.
- Although there are adaptation measures that could buffer some of the impact, they have a limited capacity that could be exceeded if there is no reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
- An example is the water available in a country where 75% of the land area is threatened by desertification and 25% of the aquifers are threatened. Water resources could decrease by 11% once the 2°C warming is reached, which would increase competition and conflicts around the scarce resource.
Climate change and GDP
In the case of Spain, where over the past 30 years major climate-related disasters alone have caused losses of 25 billion euros (half of which are related to drought), the damage could increase significantly if emissions continue at the current rate. This scenario would lead to an increase of 2°C compared to pre-industrial periods in 2050, which could reduce national GDP by more than 7% compared to a scenario without climate change.
Even if the temperature did not increase by more than 1.5°C, the losses would amount to 2.5% of GDP.
*The dehesa is a vast area of rangeland, roughly the size of Belgium. This special habitat covers much of southern and western Spain, through large parts of Andalusia and Extremadura, and reaches into Portugal. This is the usual breeding area for the Iberian pig.