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Fernando Miranda: "In Spain, agriculture cannot be conceived without irrigation"

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  • Fernando Miranda: "In Spain, agriculture cannot be conceived without irrigation"
  • The Spanish government supports the agricultural sector through the development of irrigation according to sustainability and water efficiency criteria.

  • Photographs by Pablo González-Cebrián. 

About the entity

Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Spain)
The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is the department of the Government of Spain responsible for proposing and carrying out the government policy on agricultural, livestock and fishery resources, food industry.
Global Omnium
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The future of the Spanish agricultural sector is inextricably linked to irrigation. The irrigation sector, in turn, can only move forward on the basis of resource use efficiency and the best use of available technology.

Water is, thus, a cross-cutting issue, as well as an essential input. We talk about this with Fernando Miranda, General Secretary of Agriculture and Food, and we analyse the regulations that affect the sector, and the coordination with the Ministry for the Ecological Transition (MITECO).

Question: Firstly, we would like to know about the competencies of the Spanish Ministry of Agricultural, Fisheries and Food (MAPA) that affect water resource management directly, and how the ministry coordinates with MITECO in this regard. What do you think about the role of agriculture/irrigation in the water resources planning process coordinated by MITECO?

A: Our ministry is responsible for national irrigation policy, with due respect for the responsibilities of the Regional Governments and always in coordination with them, with the Ministry for the Ecological Transition and with the irrigation associations. The purpose of this policy is to plan and implement irrigation modernisation and agricultural transformation activities. These are funded through our own allocation from the national budget, and through the agricultural infrastructure public company SEIASA, in the case of modernisation. Furthermore, this ministry supports irrigation development according to environmental sustainability and water efficiency criteria, with a commitment to innovation, digitalization, training, advising, and knowledge transfer.

The ministry's activities concerning irrigation are based on Spain's Agricultural Reform and Development Law of 1973

The Ministry for the Ecological Transition is in charge of preparing river basin management plans. The third planning cycle is now under way, and since irrigation is the main water use at the national level, it is essential to optimise this use and ensure that allocations are included in the plans.

Q: Concerning legislation, what are the main regulations affecting irrigation management in Spain?

A: Irrigation policy is subject to water resource planning regulations. The most important piece of legislation at the European level is the 2000 Water Framework Directive, which protects inland waters (surface and groundwater) and coastal waters, and promotes, at the same time, their sustainable use. This directive requires the preparation of river basin management plans, which establish the limitations for consumptive water uses, among them irrigation.

At the national level, the directive is applied in Spain through the consolidated text of the Water Law, and subsequent amendments. This regulation defines, among many other aspects, the priority order of water uses, giving priority to the municipal drinking water supply; irrigation uses under a concession regime; the regulatory fee and water use tariff; and the requirements for the preparation of river basin plans, in coordination with other related sector-based planning, such as irrigation policy.

Also of interest for irrigation policy are CAP regulations, in particular Regulation (EU) 1305/2013 on rural development, which enables co-financing irrigation modernisation activities. On the other hand, any actions related to irrigation are subject to the European nitrates directive.

The ministry's activities concerning irrigation are based on Spain's Agricultural Reform and Development Law of 1973, also applied in those regions which do not have their own legislation in that regard. Through several subsequent royal decrees, urgent action plans have been adopted, as well as urgent measures to mitigate the effects of drought in certain river basins that expand across more than one region.

Currently, the information collected through the agro-meteorological station network, SiAR, is available free of charge

Currently, the ministry is working on the next Irrigation Master Plan, as a strategic document to guide irrigation-related actions to be implemented by the government in the coming years.

Q: In Spain, what percentage of the total costs of irrigation farming are water costs? Are there any public mechanisms to help with those costs?

A: Logically, water costs depend on the crop, the irrigation system, and the source of irrigation water. The ministry, through the irrigation policy and the rural development policy, funds projects and provides tools to irrigation farmers to encourage efficient water use and therefore to lower the exploitation costs.

Currently, for instance, all the information collected through the agro-meteorological station network, SiAR — which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year — is available free of charge. This station network allows checking and downloading meteorological data and provides an estimation of the net needs of crops. 

Q: Our country is facing a scenario of increasing water scarcity. Which tools does the MAPA use to deal with recurrent drought in the agricultural sector?

A: Irrigation policy has traditionally involved agricultural transformation and irrigation modernisation projects to better deal with diminishing water resources. Our objective is to modernise some 800,000 hectares in the coming years.

In addition, irrigation policy is acting in other areas, in order to contribute to climate change resilience. These actions focus on funding irrigation innovation, as well as training and knowledge exchange among farmers, to promote the use of technology that allows efficient water and energy use and decreased fertiliser use. This will have a positive impact on soil and water quality and biodiversity, the fight against invasive species, and crop adaptation to climate change.

Since irrigation is the main consumer of water resources at the national level, it is essential to optimise water use

Q: Regarding rural development policy, what is the link to the water sector, and how does it contribute to better resource use?

A: The rural development policy, co-financed by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) through the National Rural Development Programme provides funds, as I mentioned earlier, for irrigation modernisation projects and innovation projects on irrigated land that contribute to efficient water and energy use. In addition, the regional governments have rural development programmes that also fund, with this second pillar of the CAP, irrigation modernisation projects and support investments to promote more efficient water use in agricultural holdings.

During the 2014-2020 programme cycle, the 18 Spanish Rural Development Programmes will allocate more than 943 million euros to priority number 5, which promotes efficient resource use and supports the transition to a low carbon economy that is resilient to climate change in the agricultural, livestock and forestry sectors. Within this priority, one of the specific focus areas is promoting more effective water use in agriculture.

The CAP is the common policy of the European strategy, which has contributed to positioning our agricultural sector as a world leader

Q: What is the role of water when we talk about innovation in the agriculture, food and forestry sectors, and in the rural environment?

A: Currently, water is crucial when we talk about innovation, taking into account water resource scarcity and the challenges of climate change.

Innovation in the irrigation sector focuses on promoting a more efficient use of water resources, incorporating tools for automated irrigation management and fertigation, as well as other tools to optimise energy consumption in pressurised irrigation networks. Other lines of work increasingly more important are plant breeding to increase crop resistance to extreme drought, studies on the use of a combination of conventional water sources (surface waters, groundwater, and water from an interbasin transfer) and non-conventional sources (reclaimed water and water from desalination plants) for irrigation, and the use of big data.

At the ministry we support the agricultural European Innovation Partnership (EIP-AGRI) in our national rural development programme to fund the creation of Operational Groups and innovative projects in several of these areas of work. Eleven Operational Groups working beyond the regional level, focused on promoting water efficiency, have received over 425,000 euros in funding support. Their objective is to optimise irrigation in different crops, such as hops, cereal, sugar beet, stone fruit trees, or citrus fruits. On the other hand, the current 2019 call for innovative projects, with an allocation of 25.5 million euros, has set aside 4 million euros for projects than contribute to a focus area aimed to promoting more efficient water use in agriculture.

The EU is a world leader in terms of the quality and safety of the food it produces, as well as in terms of seeking the sustainability of agricultural production

Q: In Europe, the CAP is one of the pillars of the agriculture strategy. What role does it have in the present and future of agriculture in Europe? What about in Spain?

A: Indeed, the CAP is the common policy of the European strategy, which has contributed to positioning our agricultural sector as a world leader. We are not only leaders in the world agri-food market (the agri-food sector is responsible for 7 out of every 100 euros circulating in the European Union to buy or sell a good to the rest of the world), but also the EU is a world leader in terms of the quality and safety of the food it produces, as well as in terms of seeking the sustainability of agricultural production.

European agriculture faces great challenges, such as the ones related to international commitments by the EU concerning the environment, climate, and sustainable development. In fact, the great challenge we all face, not only at the European level, is feeding a growing population, and doing it with a limited use, or even a lower use, of natural resources; that is, combining economic and environmental challenges, and doing so in a way that satisfies everyone.

40% of the total financial envelope of the CAP is expected to contribute to the climate goals that the EU and Spain have established

During the next decade agricultural models and practices have to change to a great extent. We are already perceiving these changes nowadays with the advances that innovation offers. Our pending task is turning the challenge of social changes regarding our perception of nutrition and climate and environmental sustainability into opportunities; the CAP will be a key instrument of change. 40% of the total financial envelope of the CAP is expected to contribute to the climate goals that the EU and Spain have established.

Spain, as a Mediterranean country, faces even greater challenges, so searching for new ways of production and incorporating new tools as a result of research and innovation in the sector is a must in our case. We do have significant advantages, such as the growing awareness of the benefits of our Mediterranean diet both in Europe and worldwide, so we have to continue to move forward in this path toward quality and know-how in our agricultural processes.

Q: What are the water related aspects contemplated in this European instrument, and what is Spain's position?

A: In Spain, agriculture cannot be conceived without irrigation. In the post 2020 CAP negotiation process, the government of Spain supports the continuation of investments in irrigation funded by the second pillar, always according to environmental sustainability criteria and water regulations. That position regarding the future of the CAP was approved last November by the Spanish cabinet.

This ministry supports irrigation development according to environmental sustainability and water efficiency criteria

On the other hand, within the framework of this reform, we are working actively with the regions to design and prepare a future Strategic National Plan for the CAP, where environment and climate are core elements. In the coming weeks we will convene the first meeting of the CAP environmental objectives working group, where we will address how to continue funding irrigation investments with the CAP, using as a reference the current planning mechanisms and environmental regulations.

Q: In the context of climate change, what do you think are the environmental and climate challenges faced by agriculture in Spain in the medium and short term?

Spain acquired some commitments regarding the Paris Climate Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which must be reflected in agricultural policy. The agricultural sector should provide solutions to the great global challenges, particularly those linked to climate and the environment, and those related to health, nutrition, animal well-being, and the quality and the sustainability of our food system.

An agricultural system that ensures climate and environmental sustainability is key; on one hand, the production will be valued and preferred by consumers, both in Spain and abroad, and on the other, the quality of life of the rural population will improve, encouraging economic activities in rural areas, particularly those affected by a rural exodus.

Since irrigation is the main consumer of water resources at the national level, it is essential to optimise water use

We can sum up the challenges we face to achieve climate and environmental sustainability in our agricultural and livestock sectors into the following: mitigate the emissions of greenhouse gases from agricultural sources; foster carbon sequestration in agricultural and forest soils, and adapt the agricultural sector to new climate scenarios; reduce other atmospheric pollutants from agricultural and livestock production such as ammonia; continue to work on the rational and efficient use of water in agriculture; preserve and improve the production potential of our agricultural soils, and preserve agricultural biodiversity in the rural environment.

We should not forget that our main goal should be producing healthy, quality food, while at the same time, we contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation.