Spain Spain Spain Spain

Agriculture and Horticulture Spain

Agriculture and horticulture in numbers


Agriculture accounts for only a small part of gross domestic production (GDP) in Europe, and it is considered that the overall vulnerability of the European economy to changes that affect agriculture is low (10). However, agriculture is much more important in terms of area occupied (farmland and forest land cover approximately 90 % of the EU's land surface), and rural population and income (11).


Over 90% of overall water consumption in Greece, Portugal and Spain is due to agriculture (14). Irrigated agricultural land comprises less than one-fifth of the total cropped area globally but produces about two-fifths of the world's food (1), a statistic that clearly illustrates the increased productivity that irrigation affords.

In Italy and Spain, for example, irrigated agriculture contributes more than 50% to total agricultural production and more than 60% to the total value of agricultural products (2). The area irrigated, however, encompasses only 21% and 14% of total agricultural land in Italy and Spain respectively. Similar statistics are reported at a regional scale; in the Castilla-La Mancha region of Spain, for example, the irrigated area represents about 11% of the region's agricultural land but provides more than 40% of its total agricultural production (3).

In addition to national funding mechanisms, some irrigated crops have historically received significant support under the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). These subsidies buffer the impact of global markets and competition, and have led to increased water use and a shift of traditional rain-fed crops to irrigated cultivation. In Spain, for example, olive production has traditionally been rain-fed but is now the main water consumer in the Guadalquivir region in Andalusia (4); nearly 300,000 ha of land devoted to olive production are now irrigated in the Guadalquivir river basin.

The Common Agricultural Policy supports water intensive practices in regions with high water stress and high vulnerability to future droughts. The social and economic fabric of these regions is now almost entirely dependent upon unsustainable water systems (5).

As regards the agricultural sector, Spain has the second largest area under cultivation in the European Union after France (more than 24 million hectares given over to crops and pasture annually) and is the EU's fourth-ranking agricultural power, accounting for approximately 11% of the EU-27's total production, behind France (18%), Germany and Italy. Nevertheless, the agricultural sector's working population has gradually declined over the years and agriculture’s relative contribution to GDP has fallen steadily, dropping to 2.6% in 2006 (6).

Vulnerabilities Spain

Spring advancement crop phenology

Plant phenology is modulated by climate, and closely governed by water availability and air temperature. Over the period 1986–2012, an increase both in temperature and in rainfall intensity in Spain has advanced most phenophases (such as sowing date, emergence, flowering, seed ripening and harvest) for a number of winter cereals (oats, wheat, rye, barley and maize), mainly during the spring. For wheat and oats, for instance, flowering date advanced by about 1 day/year. Changes in phenology could in turn impact crop yield; fortunately, human intervention in crop systems is likely to minimize the negative impact (34).

Irrigation and crop yields 

For Europe an increase in net irrigation requirements has been calculated of about 6% for the 2020s, and of about 9% for the 2070s as compared to the baseline scenario (1961-1990), including large regional differences (7). While a drop of net irrigation requirements from 771 mm/year to 701 mm/year in the 2020s is predicted for western Spain, irrigation requirements are predicted to increase in southeast England from 77 to 120 mm/year.

In general, one could have expected larger changes in irrigation requirements, especially in the southern countries, where irrigation is important. However, the expected improvements in water use efficiency are larger than the expected decrease in water availability due to climate change. The result could be an overall decrease of water withdrawn for irrigation. At the same time many unknown factors such as changes in the irrigated areas and changes in crop varieties and their regional distribution could heavily influence the results of such predictions (5).

In southern latitudes, however, the actual cultivars might not be adapted to the predicted higher temperatures. With temperatures exceeding the temperature range for optimum growth, a reduction in net growth and yield is expected in this region (5,24).

In Spain negative consequences of climate change for agriculture are expected in some regions, and benefits in others: the negative effect of high temperatures and lower precipitations may be compensated by higher photosynthetic rates, due to the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. In addition, softer winter temperatures will permit higher yields, compensating for the losses of other seasons (8).

For Spain, the change of crop yield in 2080 referred to 1990 has been estimated based on several combinations of models and scenarios; the outcomes show a decrease up to almost 30% (15,22). In an overview study, the UK Met Office concluded that quantitative crop yield projections under climate change scenarios for Spain vary across studies due to the application of different models, assumptions and emissions scenarios (26). They stated that a definitive conclusion on the impact of climate change on crop yields in Spain cannot be drawn from the studies they included, but a majority of global- and regional-scale studies surveyed generally project an increase in the yield of wheat, one of Spain’s major crops, over the century. Also, model results indicate that much of the area currently cultivated could become less suitable for agricultural production as a result of climate change (26).

The Region of Murcia

The hot and dry Region of Murcia has become a major producer of fruits and vegetables over the last 30 years. This is reflected in the importance of agriculture in the economy (8.3% of regional employment and 5.8% of regional gross added value against 4.5 and 2.6% at the national level, respectively); agricultural exports make up 35.4% of Murcia’s total exports (30). However,its agricultural sector is premised on heavy overexploitation of groundwater resources and reliance on the Tagus–Segura inter-basin water transfer (IBWT) scheme, which was inaugurated in 1979. The export of agricultural products, therefore, is a ‘virtual’ export of water from a water-scarce region (29).

Roughly 60% of the natural flow of the upper Tagus is committed to the Tagus–Segura IBWT. TheIBWT has been developed because cities and tourism on the Mediterranean coast needed water to grow and irrigated agriculture in the sub-tropical zones of southern Spain achieves higher water productivity than in the interior regions (29). However, due to reduced flow levels, the Tagus is now among the most polluted European rivers (31), and growing water needs in theconceding region have led to bitter disputes.

For the past 30 years, regional water demand in the Segura basin has surpassed availability of renewable water resources as a combined effect of increased irrigation (87% of current water demand) and rapid urbanization (7%) (32). As a result, ironically, the IBWT schemehas only further aggravated the region’s chronic water shortage. Without groundwater and IBWT, about two-thirds of the region’s agricultural area would be abandoned. Agricultural output would be decimated to less than 5% of its current value (29).

The regional government of Murcia has a tremendous challenge to reduce overexploitation of water resources and reduce vulnerability of the regional economy to water scarcity. At the same time, the region’s farmers feel trapped in water-dependent productivity and fear any reform that negatively affects their resource base. Farmers see no option to continue farming if confronted with complete water depletion (physical water scarcity) or high levels of water taxation (economic water scarcity). These scenarios would lead to very large reductions in water use by agriculture, but also result in a contraction of the regional economy by more than 13% (29).

Vulnerabilities Europe - Climate change not main driver

Socio-economic factors and technological developments

Climate change is only one driver among many that will shape agriculture and rural areas in future decades. Socio-economic factors and technological developments will need to be considered alongside agro-climatic changes to determine future trends in the sector (11).

From research it was concluded that socio-economic assumptions have a much greater effect on the scenario results of future changes in agricultural production and land use then the climate scenarios (16).

The European population is expected to decline by about 8% over the period from 2000 to 2030 (17).

Scenarios on future changes in agriculture largely depend on assumptions about technological development for future agricultural land use in Europe (16). It has been estimated that changes in the productivity of food crops in Europe over the period 1961–1990 were strongest related to technology development and that effects of climate change were relatively small. For the period till 2080 an increase in crop productivity for Europe has been estimated between 25% and 163%, of which between 20% and 143% is due to technological development and 5- 20% is due to climate change and CO2 fertilisation. The contribution of climate change just by itself is approximately a minor 1% (18).

Care should be taken, however, in drawing firm conclusions from the apparent lack of sensitivity of agricultural land use to climate change. At the regional scale there are winners and losers (in terms of yield changes), but these tend to cancel each other out when aggregated to the whole of Europe (16).

Future changes in land use

If technology continues to progress at current rates then the area of agricultural land would need to decline substantially. Such declines will not occur if there is a correspondingly large increase in the demand for agricultural goods, or if political decisions are taken either to reduce crop productivity through policies that encourage extensification or to accept widespread overproduction (16).

Cropland and grassland areas (for the production of food and fibre) may decline by as much as 50% of current areas for some scenarios. Such declines in production areas would result in large parts of Europe becoming surplus to the requirement of food and fibre production (16). Over the shorter term (up to 2030) changes in agricultural land area may be small (19).

Although it is difficult to anticipate how this land would be used in the future, it seems that continued urban expansion, recreational areas (such as for horse riding) and forest land use would all be likely to take up at least some of the surplus. Furthermore, whilst the substitution of food production by energy production was considered in these scenarios, surplus land would provide further opportunities for the cultivation of bioenergy crops (16).

Europe is a major producer of biodiesel, accounting for 90% of the total production worldwide (20). In the Biofuels Progress Report (21), it is estimated that in 2020, the total area of arable land required for biofuel production will be between 7.6 million and 18.3 million hectares, equivalent to approximately 8% and 19% respectively of total arable land in 2005.

The agricultural area of Europe has already diminished by about 13% in the 40 years since 1960 (16).

Adaptation strategies

A distinction can be made between short adjustments that aim at optimising production without introducing major system changes, and long-term adaptations where heavier structural changes will take place to alleviate the adverse effects of climate change (9):

  • Short-term changes include management practices, such as conservation tillage, drip and trickle irrigation, and irrigation scheduling that help to preserve soil moisture. It is also important to maintain sufficiently high levels of soil organic matter (22);
  • Long-term changes include the change of land use to adapt to the new climate in order to stabilise production and to avoid strong inter-annual variability in yields. The suggested adjustments include changes in planting strategies and the use of more appropriate cultivars: long season cultivars might increase yield potential, while late cultivars might be used to prevent destruction due to heat waves and drought during the summer. Mentioned are also the change in farming systems since many farms are specialised in arable farming and, therefore, are tightly linked to local soil and climate conditions.

Crops vary in their resistance to drought, water requirements and the time of year at which the requirement peaks. These factors, together with irrigation management and soil moisture conservation can all reduce crop water use. Deficit irrigation is a technique that aims to reduce the amount of water applied to below the 'theoretical irrigation need' on the basis that the substantial water savings realised outweigh the modest reduction in crop yield. Improving the timing of irrigation so that it closely follows crop water requirements can lead to significant water savings (12). Water pricing can trigger reduced water use via a number of possible farmer responses, including improving irrigation efficiency, reducing the area of irrigated land, ceasing irrigation and modifying agricultural practices such as cropping patterns and timing of irrigation (13).

Long-term climate change adaptation strategies are specifically needed for fruit trees, olive trees and vineyards (8).

Model calculations (27) show that over the Mediterranean basin:

  • an advanced sowing time may result in a successful strategy especially for summer crops. The advancement of anthesis and grain filling stages allowed the summer crops to partially escape the heat waves and drought;
  • irrigation highly increase the yield of the selected crops. In general, requirements for summer crops were larger than for winter crops. Accordingly, the beneficial effects of this strategy were more evident for summer crops.

The use of irrigation to tackle summer water stress in southern Europe include a number of structural adaptations for enhancing water storage via increasing storage capacity for surface water (construction of  retention reservoirs and dams), and groundwater (aquifer recharge); rainwater harvesting and storage; conjunctive use of surface water and groundwater; water transfer; desalination of sea water; removing of invasive non-native vegetation; and deep well pumping (28).

Policy adaptation - mitigation

Policy will have to support the adaptation of European agriculture to climate change by encouraging the flexibility of land use, crop production, farming systems etc. In doing so, it is necessary to consider the multifunctional role of agriculture, and to strike a variable balance between economic, environmental and social functions in different European regions. Policy will also need to be concerned with agricultural strategies to mitigate climate change through a reduction in emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, an increase in carbon sequestration in agricultural soils and the growing of energy crops to substitute fossil energy use. The policies to support adaptation and mitigation to climate change will need to be linked closely to the development of agri-environmental schemes in the European Union Common Agricultural Policy (23).

A study has been carried out on the possible impact of climate change on the production of olives, grapes, citrus, and cereal, that make up >30% of Spanish agricultural area (25). It was shown that Policies or adaptation response needs to be location-specific and, often, crop-specific in order to adequately consider and address the likely climate impacts in the region as well as the specific management and socio-economic conditions (i.e. irrigation) of the location. The researchers concluded that future policy actions in the Mediterranean need to be focused on helping farmers to adopt strategies that are in compliance with current and developing legislation and programs, especially in view of the continued reform of the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union and the implementation of other policies such as the EU Water Framework Directive.

The Region of Murcia

A low water tax scenario would lead to a relatively limited contraction of the regional economy of Murcia by 7%; this suggests that the agricultural sector has a self-organizing capacity to deal with some of its water use inefficiency. This capacity may be limited with respect to a further increase of water demand due to climate change, however. If climate change leads to reduced rainfall inputs, this would not only reduce groundwater recharge rates, perhaps hastening groundwater scarcity, but also limit the viability of switching from irrigated to rain fed agriculture (29).

Resolving water scarcity through new IBWT development may lead to regional economic development (4–5%) but only increases the region’s dependency on water. Plans for a further Ebro–Segura IBWT scheme have for the time being been put on hold (29).

Desalinization could be partly subsidized by the government as it can relieve social and environmental problems associated with the current IBWT and groundwater overexploitation (29). However, average energy demands of desalinization are more than a factor of 3 higher than for the Tagus–Segura IBWT (33).

Guadiana Basin (Extremadura region)

Climate change adaptation options for irrigation farming in the southwestern central plateau of Spain (Extremadura region) have been analyzed (35). Among the various adaptation measures considered, various stakeholders (policy-makers, farmers, environmental organizations and academics) prefer those related to private farming (new crop varieties and modern irrigation technologies), whereas public-funded hard measures (increasing reservoir storage capacity) are lowest and public soft measures (insurance) are ranked middle. 


The references below are cited in full in a separate map 'References'. Please click here if you are looking for the full references for Spain.

  1. Doll and Siebert (2002), in: European Environment Agency (EEA) (2009)
  2. OECD (2006), in: European Environment Agency (EEA) (2009)
  3. Álvarez and Matamala (2004), in: European Environment Agency (EEA) (2009)
  4. WWF (2005), in: European Environment Agency (EEA) (2009)
  5. Eisenreich (2005)
  6. Government of Spain, Quinta Comunicación Nacional de España
  7. Döll (2002), in: Eisenreich (2005)
  8. Oficina Española de Cambio Climático (2008)
  9. Parry (2000), in: Eisenreich (2005)
  10. EEA (2006), in: EEA, JRC and WHO (2008)
  11. EEA, JRC and WHO (2008)
  12. Amigues et al. (2006), in: EEA (2009)
  13. EEA (2009)
  14. Anderson (ed.) (2007)
  15. EEA (2003)
  16. Rounsevell et al. (2005)
  17. UN (2004), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
  18. Ewert et al. (2005), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
  19. Van Meijl et al. (2006), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
  20. JNCC (2007), in: Anderson (ed.) (2007)
  21. European Commission (2006), in: Anderson (ed.) (2007)
  22. Ciscar et al. (2009), in: Behrens et al. (2010)
  23. Olesen and Bindi (2002)
  24. Iglesias et al. (2009)
  25. Iglesias et al. (2010)
  26. UK Met Office (2011)
  27. Moriondo et al. (2010)
  28. Kundzewicz et al. (2007), in: Moriondo et al. (2010)
  29. Fleskens et al. (2013)
  30. CREM (2011), in: Fleskens et al. (2013)
  31. Hernández Soria (2003), in: Fleskens et al. (2013)
  32. Grindlay et al. (2011), in: Fleskens et al. (2013)
  33. Melgarejo and Montano (2011), in: Fleskens et al. (2013)
  34. Oteros et al. (2015)
  35. Varela-Ortega et al. (2016)