European Tropical Agriculture

Humans are the only animal able to convert an infinite resource into a finite resource. All natural resources are designed to regenerate, but human beings and their activities can interrupt their natural life cycle. Our activities influence how water, flora, fauna, and soils are used or transformed, and at what speed they do so.

Agriculture is an essential activity whose purpose is to grow food. Human, mechanical, and natural resources are used to achieve this. Efficiency in the use of these resources will determine whether the cultivated agricultural product is viable both on an environmental and a socioeconomic level. Human beings, with their experience and learning capacity, are able to minimise the environmental impact generated by agricultural activities, but the variable that plays the key role vis-à-vis impact is the climate of the location where the crop is grown.

Water is an essential resource for all agricultural activities. People can influence how it is used so that it remains a lasting resource over the years. In recent years, water consumption in avocado and mango cultivation has been in the spotlight.

Research centres such as “La Mayora” in Málaga (Spain) are undertaking projects related to the efficient use of irrigation water in agriculture, a fundamental resource for the socioeconomic development of southern Europe.

Iñaki: I don’t think that desertification will take place as a result of growing subtropical crops in southern Spain. If desertification does happen in the future, it will be down to climate change, which will occur regardless of what types of crops we have. What we need to do is adapt to climate change and fight against it at the same time.

Growing tropical crops with irrigation in southern Spain can even be beneficial because we’re fixing carbon; otherwise, the land wouldn’t be productive. If we don’t irrigate it, there will be practically no carbon fixation. As we’re growing crops sustainably, we’re fixing carbon and increasing the diversity of fauna on the plantations, so we can help offset climate change.

The amount of water needed to produce a kilo of avocados in Spain is 700 litres on average. Technical improvements in irrigation over the last decade, as well as a meticulous control of plant growth, have reduced this figure to below 400 litres per kilo of avocados at some farms.

This amount of water may seem high. The amount needed to produce 1 kilo of avocados in Spain is less than that of other fruits. For example, apples need 822 litres per kilo. Nectarines need 910 litres per kilo and cereals such as maize can use up to 1,222 litres per kilo, more than double that of avocados.

Illustration of an apple, apricot and corn on the cob with a drop of water

In southern Spain, the water-related needs of avocados are well below the world average, which is 1,981 litres per kilo.

María is a young farmer from Málaga, Spain, who grows organic mangoes and avocados. When she finished her degree, she joined her family’s farming project. The first thing she did was to convince her family to certify their farms with the European Union organic farming label. Today, Maria is one of the promoters of the Tropiterranean movement. This movement is formed by European-based farmers who grow and sell tropical fruit while respecting natural resources.

One of Maria’s main concerns for a viable mango production is water.

Maria: That’s why we decided to opt for a self-sufficient and ecological water system. Here, the months with rainfall are when the plant doesn’t really need water, so we decided that we could leverage the rainwater before it ends up in the sea. That’s why we made a channeling system. We have feeder channels across the farm that collect all the water and redirect it to a pond. In the lower areas, a motor is used to redirect the water, which we then collect in the autumn, winter, and spring and use for irrigation in the summer.

Jose Antonio is also another young farmer who combines his university studies with helping at the family-run business. This new generation of farmers uses social media platforms to solve the doubts of European consumers. On many occasions, they receive enquiries from people concerned about water consumption and whether the climate in their area is ideal for growing avocados.

Two men among the leaves of avocado trees

Jose Antonio: The Costa Tropical in Granada and the area heading towards Axarquía enjoy a tropical microclimate that is unique in Europe, the only one in which you can grow tropical and subtropical crops that would otherwise be found in South America, certain Asian countries or Central Africa.

Iñaki: The use of water is lower than in other countries, such as Israel or coastal Peru, which have to irrigate more. The use of irrigation water for avocados in Spain can be half of what’s needed on the coast of Peru, which is much more desert-like than here.

In this part of southern Spain, where just a few miles separate the sea from the mountains, farmers have plenty of water. Damián uses water from the snowmelt of the Sierra Nevada National Park to irrigate his fields on the La Reala farm. This water is stored in the Rules Dam and distributed to farmers for irrigation. This dam is part of the new infrastructure created by the government to promote the development of economically viable tropical crops in the area. These crops create employment during the quieter months for tourism, the other major industry in the region.

Damian: We manage the water on the farm in a very sustainable way. Our water comes from the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, where it is channeled and then distributed through various basins or aquifers until reaching the farm. If we weren’t using that water, it would go directly into the sea.

Iñaki: It’s of great importance that European consumers consider products produced in Spain as local products. We have a minimal transport carbon footprint compared to tropical fruits that come from South America or Africa. Tropical products grown in Spain are very close to the consumer and reach them in just a few hours. We have a lower carbon footprint and we can harvest the fruit at the optimal point of ripeness.

This has helped rural communities thrive. In Málaga and Granada, there are people living in the villages thanks to farming, as this lets them live in their place of origin without having to move to big cities.

Avocados and mangoes grown in Europe travel for less time and fewer miles than other tropical fruits that we can find. Agricultural movements like Tropiterranean are creating a direct farm-to-table sales channel that rewards farmers who grow crops responsibly.

People are increasingly aware of the impact generated by their consumption habits. Our purchasing decisions can create jobs in rural areas and decide the future of the European agricultural landscape.

Buying directly from the farmer raises awareness and generates a more immediate impact.