Guadalquivir - regional agriculture to fight climate change

Updated: Oct 24, 2020

Guadalquivir valley: a vision and proposal


The Guadalquivir river is 657km long and drains a catchment area of approximately 58,000 square km (5.8 million hectares). The flood plain area is about half this, the rest is hill and mountainsides that form the catchment area and give it its boundaries. The flood plain, like most, is or was very fertile because of the silt washed down by millions of years of rains, all the minerals included in this, and of course the plant cover which utilises the fertility.

As we know such surface fertility (the first 1-2 metres of soil depth) is fragile and susceptible to huge levels of destruction by industrial agriculture practices, notably deforestation, ‘grubbing up’ of tree roots, annual ploughing for crops such as wheat, sunflower or oil seed rape, leaching of nutrients because of over irrigation, and salination for the same reason. Growing rice and cotton both increase problems with excessive water use and salinification. Although the river carries a lot of water, reservoirs all over south and central Spain are low due to droughts for the last 2 years. Ploughing and leaving the soil bare leads to loss of the soil’s abilities to hold nutrients and water, loss of micronutrients and erosion, including wind erosion of exposed soils.

All growing plants absorb CO2, but annual ploughing, cutting and burning trees, mining or manufacturing industrial fertilisers and other agrichemicals, and transporting them around the world, produce far more CO2 than the plants can absorb. This contributes to atmospheric CO2, and global heating. If the soil ecosystem was left to itself, or was farmed without ploughing and agrochemicals, the carbon dioxide would be held by plants and associated organisms above and in the soil.

Photos: Inigo Iturri

Current agricultural practice contributes about one third of global CO2 production; meat production produces 15% of global C02 or half of agricultural CO2. Overall, from production to consumption, well managed agriculture should be carbon neutral more or less, in that agriculture should absorb CO2, while consumption of the food produces CO2. As just stated all the associated aspects of agriculture produce additional CO2. That agriculture produces 1/3 of the humanly generated CO2 indicates how massively out of balance agriculture is with the ‘natural’ cycle. The reverse is possible; reforesting and good agricultural practice will absorb and hold CO2 in growing plants, especially trees, and in soil. Agriculture should be a net carbon absorber if done differently.

Globally it has become known, and many farmers are concerned, that soil fertility is declining due to ‘industrial’ agriculture, and soil will not continue to grow crops for more than another 50 years in many places. Other places have already lost useful soil fertility, sometimes long ago. Even if there are more than 50 years of cropping in some currently farmed soils, if global warming continues on the current trajectory, then poorly maintained soils will become desert, and remaining vegetation will likely burn off.

The Guadalquivir valley is well on the way to desertification. Large areas of once fertile flood plain are left exposed to the sun without any vegetation for much of the summer, between a late spring harvest in May or early June, and ploughing in September. Many crops grow through autumn into spring with the seasonal rain, aided by irrigation, plus the fertilisers requires to turn the otherwise dead soil into some form of growing medium. This treatment maximises wind erosion, death of the soil microbiota, surface evaporation, and salination. Water and micronutrients are lost to the soil, and the water table lowers. Pollution of the remaining river water is maximised, the river contains fertiliser, pesticide, herbicide and fungicide residues breeding resistant disease species, and further polluting any land it is used to irrigate, as well as the river mouth flowing through Doñana National Park, which is an international reserve, and the surrounding seas.


The situation needs urgent remediation, for continued sustainable agriculture in the region, and to assist in the global struggle to alleviate the climate emergency. The remediation consists of the following elements.

1: Maximise permanent planting over the whole region, using trees, shrubs, perennial crops and other plants. Tree crops should not be left with bare soil between them – tree deserts – but should be interplanting with cover crops or other harvestable crops – alley cropping agroforestry.

2: Minimise water requirements by planting autochthonous plants in significant areas, particularly in higher catchment areas. Autochthonous plants are adapted to rainfall in the autumn to spring months and a 4-5 month hot dry summer (nearly six months in 2019). Encina or holm oak, olives if not farmed intensively, pinos pinero or stone pine, and algorobo or carob are all suitable trees for such planting, and all produce useful crops.

3: Where annual crops are required for conventional food production, such as wheat or barley, utilise “conservation agriculture” with no till farming, cover crops left on the soil as mulch, and direct seeding. Irrigation should be minimised by careful calculation, and where possible by use of drip irrigation, rather than surface sprayers, which waste enormous amounts of water, contributing to salinification.

4: Avoid water hungry crops such as rice. Hemp can be grown where the soil is more acid, for soil amelioration and the multiple uses it can be put to, especially clothing fibre and building bales. Crops of hemp or anything else should not be grown for biodiesel. Bamboo is another good alternative to cotton for clothing fibre, with some environmental advantages especially in pesticide use. Although it uses less water than cotton, bamboo is not a solution if water conservation is key.

5: Minimal animal production for meat and dairy, especially no factory farming. Free range chicken and egg production can be combined with agroforestry depending on the other crops grown. Ducks are very useful in mixed agriculture systems. Pigs can be farmed traditionally amongst mature oak woods.

6: Agroforestry and conservation no-till agriculture can produce human food and provide other useful crops in long term sustainable ways. Production from new planting of tree crops clearly takes some years to develop, nevertheless it makes sense in a number of ways including financially. As already stated, tree and no till crops sequester CO2 in the soil, revive the soil microbiome, hold much more water in the soil, raise the water table, and contribute to the water pump effect of woodlands to moisten the air allowing further rainfall in more inland areas. Natural fertilisers for example produced from seaweed and humanure will return nutrients to the soil without increasing CO2 production and will additionally help CO2 sequestration by enriching the soil biome. Further, there is a direct cooling effect of having plant cover on the soil, bare soil heats up under the direct sun, and heats the air immediately above it, contributing to the “frying pan” effect much noted in low areas of the Quadalquivir valley.

7: Fire risk. Fire is not unknown in Andalucía, it appears most fires are started by human activity, although some are spontaneous. Risk of fire increases with the climate emergency. However some autochthonous plants are fire adapted, for example Quercus rober (cork oak), retama species, Mediterranean cypress, dwarf fan palm, and perennials. Perennial spring or autumn plants that die back and lose their leaves in summer are both drought and fire adapted. Risk of fire can be mitigated with fire breaks only to a degree; wide defoliated areas do not help much as sparks and small burning pieces of bark can be carried long distances by wind. A forest fire can leap over wide rivers or large distances when driven by strong winds, or when the fire is so large it generates electrical storms, as was recently seen in Australia. Research is being done using fire resistant plants, especially the Mediterranean cypress (horizontalis variety), which does not burn easily.

All of this will need significant investment. Reforming the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies to farmers could go a long way towards helping this. There is a lot of thought needed to make agriculture economic in ways that benefit the planet rather than going for intensive farming that only brings short term profits. More is to come on this topic.

Photo Javier Iturri

Investment and Organisation – preliminary thoughts

Agriculture is not economic in its current form. Farmers (in Europe) unbelievable as it seems, make a small percent (it can be as low as 7-8%) of their income from their produce, the rest is largely agricultural subsidies. Some cereal farmers actually make a loss from their produce, and could not survive without subsidies. According to an economist working for the National Farmers Union in the UK, half of UK farms will not be economically viable when farm subsidies are reduced or stopped after Brexit. (Financial Times 27/10/19). This is critical for several reasons. First, the true cost, or true value, of the food is not reflected in its price, either to the farmer, to the retailer or to the consumer. Cheap food is the cornerstone of the economies of so-called developed nations. Cheap food is all that lower income families can afford, sometimes they struggle to do even this, and cheap food allows those with more income to buy consumer goods and products (electronic devices, flights, holidays, computer games for example) that fuel our current economies.

One comment at the Groundswell Conservation Agriculture conference (June 2019) was that agriculture produces under-priced food for underpaid people. If food cost in the streets or supermarkets the true amount needed for its production including the environmental costs, the price would be astronomical. That said, some conservation farmers in Europe produce food without subsidies and manage to survive, by producing more specialist foods and food products and staying outside the EU agricultural net, which is itself not easy.

Second, as briefly described above, much agriculture is destructive of the environment and produces huge amounts of CO2. Soil is being degraded and eroded especially by ploughing. Intensive animal farming such as diary results in huge pollution from animal waste. Pesticides and other biocides contaminate the land, kill bees and other pollinating insects, and potentially cause neurodevelopmental disorders in children as well as other human diseases. Much more has been said for example in the PSA report on agriculture, and the Climate Change report (IPCC 2019).

Third, so obvious it has to be clearly restated, land is the only resource we have, along with the ocean, to feed ourselves and at the same time to combat climate change. “Biogeoengineering” although a term that is in danger of encouraging mechanistic views of what we are trying to achieve, is much safer and cheaper than “geoengineering” climate amelioration, such as covering the Arctic ice with fine silica powder to increase its albedo. Recent scientific opinion has concluded that, along with a drastic reduction in CO2 production, planting trees if done on a large enough scale will absorb enough atmospheric CO2 to stop climate heating from accelerating, along with many other benefits to wildlife, biodiversity, air quality and so on. Trees also produce many important crops that can feed humanity, as well as some animals. For example, nuts can provide a good proportion of our protein needs, replacing meat. However acorns can also feed pigs producing smaller quantities of very high quality pork without compromising the urgent climate change needs.

Fourth, investment in land, if the land is managed well, will produce three benefits. It will protect the initial investment, it is likely to produce a reasonable return on the investment, and it will allow funding for the necessary changes to agricultural practice at the necessary scale (geological and ecosystem regions). It remains therefore to design an investment programme that can achieve these admittedly enormous aims.

A key feature is ownership of the land. Ownership gives control, and the project will involve buying, or otherwise investing in, privately owned land. One proposal therefore would be a Trust or similar organisation with an aim, not of tax evasion or other hidden financial actions, but to hold land ownership in a supra-personal organisation, on behalf of the region in which the project is. A Guadalquivir project therefore would be on behalf of the Andalucía region. It would however have to be protected from political manoeuvrings and takeovers.

Fifth, the regional nature of the project needs to be fostered. This will need educational meetings and farmers’ conferences, liaison with the Andalucian junta over agricultural policies and targeting of subsidies and support where they have control, and publicity with the whole local population who will see the changes , gradual at first, and may be concerned about visible changes of land use. The current Covid-19 pandemic shows how information and behaviour change can rapidly occur in the face of an emergency, which climate heating is.

Educational projects in schools will be helpful, linking the actions to the reasons for them in climate change/emergency and loss of soil fertility. Involvement of university departments in Seville, Cordoba and Malaga, where research is being done into climate crisis amelioration, will be part of helping to persuade the Junta, if this is necessary, that the actions proposed are necessary. This will also support investment, and change in those farms not directly involved, so the whole region can be moved in the same overall direction (allowing for variation within individual farms, and for those whose projects are not directly analogous, such as equestrian establishments.) As indicated above, traditional pig farming with acorn fed (or finished) pigs is an agroforestry/silvopasture practice that should be unproblematic in terms of the overall project, although part of their feed cycle has to be crops specifically grown for them. Cattle can also be farmed in limited numbers in silvopasture agriculture.

The primary form of investment could be to buy bonds in the project, although the details of how this would work needs much more thought. Bonds could be linked to specific parcels of land, or generally to the project as a whole. The value of the bonds would be directly linked to the value of the land, and the money provided by investors would be used to buy fincas as they come up for sale. The overall investment amounts would be tied directly to land bought by the project, if investment exceeded land held by the Trust clear problems would arise. A small excess however would be useful so as to have funds immediately available to buy land as it came on the market.

Clearly bond value tied to land value could go in both directions, however the expectation would be relatively steady value, and a gradual increase especially as the project showed demonstable benefits. One major aim would be to stabilise values to protect investments and the agricultural project as a whole. My view is that the bonds would need to be protected from wild or aggressive market conditions, by separating them from the stock market’s algorithms and moment by moment fluctuations. This could be done by requiring 3 months notice for withdrawal of funds, as is already the case with some investments, but also by having a different mechanism for valuation. The value in a broad sense of land used for agriculture, especially ecological and sustainable agriculture, is not going to go away, unless Andalucia succumbs to desertification.

As above a major source of income to farmers is the EU subsidies. In addition payments for ecological, climate ameliorating projects are sometimes available from the EU as well as the Junta de Andalucia, which is very aware and concerned about climate risks to the region. This can be factored into the overall running of the project, financing its development as well as the potential return on bonds. Clearly a primary aim is to provide wages and salaries of the farmers and agricultural workers who depend on these subsidies. Increasing the workforce on the land with different methods of agriculture is possible.

There remain many questions about the legal structure of bond investment, the organisation that would oversee it, its freedom by being outside the ordinary share market. The need to employ lawyers, management, and advisors must be factored in, while simplifying the structure to minimise the management layers. Possibly it could be a charity, although that would be difficult to square with the provision of investment opportunities. The point of raising these thoughts, for which I claim no originality, is to think about possibilities, to protect the future of agriculture, and especially to protect the beautiful Andalucia region as we face the challenge of climate heating.

April 2020

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