New “old” crops that help combat drought Only 20-23% of the agricultural area belongs to irrigated land, which continues to grow compared to dry land

Fenugreek, carob, chickpea, alverjón. These are some of the crops being experimented with at the Institute for Rural, Agrarian and Food Research and Development (IMIDRA) of the Community of Madrid. They resist drought so well, says Roberto Sainz, a crop expert at the center, that last year with practically no rain, they survived. Three years ago, Imidra researchers began working with legumes. «Some were varieties that were known only in books and that are known to have been cultivated even 5,000 years ago (fenugreek has been found in some burials in Egypt). We ordered seeds from the Center for Plant Genetic Resources and Sustainable Agriculture of Alcalá de Henares. They gave us a handful and, in this time, we have managed to have a sufficient quantity to do microtests and study its water resistance. In periods of drought it is key to maintain the soil and legumes are interesting for crop rotation.

The research has been carried out on the experimental farm La Chimenea (Aranjuez), which has a space of 15,000 m2 for experimentation: “We are looking for how to make dry land profitable and the number of hectares does not continue to decrease,” says the technician. . In short, farmers should not abandon crops such as cereals, due to their difficulties, which are not only affected by droughts, but also by sales prices, which always remain low while production costs increase. «There are rainfed varieties that are not interesting to grow, because what comes from third countries is much cheaper. If the import devalues ​​the price, it is normal for the farmer to abandon it,” says Sainz.

Following the data on the useful agricultural area in Spain, between 20-23% of crops belong to irrigated land and the rest to dry land. However, the irrigated area has increased by about 500,000 hectares in the last decade (the land is up to three and four times more productive when it is irrigated). A quarter of the land in Spain produces 65% of the Spanish crop, irrigation advocates say; However, it eats up 80% of the country's water resources, its detractors say. And every time there is drought the debate arises, do we have to consider what and how to grow? Could rice disappear from the countryside in favor of nuts? Our country suffers a high level of water stress as stated by the World Resources Institute, but the climate change forecasts do not paint a promising future for the country. The European Environment Agency indicates that southern and central Europe will become drier and warmer as the century progresses and many analyzes claim that these conditions will have an impact on agricultural performance. According to the recent study “Plants adaptability to climate change and dry stress for crop growth and production”, between 1980 and 2015, drought has reduced wheat and corn yields by up to 40% worldwide. With each extra degree, 6% is lost in global wheat production.

«The dryland is a crop that is considered subsistence, to get by; Cereal prices have not risen for years. To increase your profitability there are several strategies: switch to organic farming; become part of some denomination of origin as in the case of the vine (quality wines are irrigated little), and the third possibility is to switch to crops adapted to droughts,” says Esaú Martínez, researcher at Chaparrillo, center of the Regional Institute for Agri-Food and Forestry Research and Development (Iriaf) of Castilla-La Mancha.

What is happening in many of the traditional cereal-growing areas of Spain is precisely the latter: crops are changed. Since 2004, the Survey of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food indicates a trend of decreasing surface area dedicated to cereals and vineyards and an increase in woody crops such as olive, almond or pistachio, which require less water and generate more profitability. This is the case of the pistachio that is experiencing a real boom. In the next ten years, Spain will become the fourth largest producer of this nut in the world. Production between 2021 and 2022 was 16,725 tons, compared to the average of the last five years, which is 9,763 tons. We are far from the major producer, the United States, but it is one of the crops that is growing the most in the country. «Pistachio is grown in Iran and Turkey, California in the United States or Sicily, that is, in arid areas, including volcanic areas where there is no water in the first layers of the earth. So with its roots it has a good adaptation to drought,” argues Javier Gallego, director of Sustainability and Innovation at Aagróptimum, a company specializing in the cultivation of this dried fruit, which is predicted to have a good future in our country. And in Europe alone we eat about 150,000 tons of pistachios per year.

The mirage of the carob tree

Another crop that has attracted attention in recent times is the carob. This experienced a real fever in 2022 when the sale price skyrocketed to reach 1.65 euros, when the usual thing is for it to be around 0.65. Now it has returned to its usual price and interest in the carob has disappeared despite being an ancient crop and very resistant to drought. «That increase in 2022 seems to have had to do with those who store the locust bean who accumulated it to raise the price, that is, there was speculation. Various products are obtained from the tree: the pulp of the black pod that is used for animal feed and the seed from which they are obtained, for example the thickener E410 that is used in ice cream or porridge. Now the pod is beginning to be used to manufacture products for diabetics and it is being revalued somewhat, but I think that production is going to remain stable, although it is being used more and more for human consumption,” says Armando Boullosa, head of the nuts sector of the Valencian Farmers Association (AVA-ASAJA). The technician. In addition, he remembers that carob cultivation is ecological, good for fixing CO2 and nitrogen because “although it is not 100% a legume, it has some characteristics,” he clarifies.

Skimp on water

Regardless of whether I irrigate yes or no, how should crops be grown on these surfaces to guarantee minimal water use? . Many R&D centers on the Peninsula and more and more crop fields are experimenting and working with what are known as controlled deficit irrigation systems. «For example, if an olive grove needs about 4,000-5,000 m3 of water per hectare, using this method the water need is reduced to 1,800 meters per hectare. Using sensors of all kinds, such as those for environmental humidity, large volumes of water can be saved,” explains researcher Esaú Martínez from IRIAF. In this sense, the Ministry of Agriculture has recently committed an investment package of more than 2.1 billion euros until 2027 to modernize irrigation.

AI to reduce consumption in the field

The agricultural sector is becoming more and more technical. Not only are sensors placed, drip irrigation, but artificial intelligence can also be used to see how much water is used and calculate the exact amount of phytosanitary products that are needed. This is what the company Agróptimum is working on as part of the EU Life-AIs project working group.

What is achieved by using AI and 3D cameras with GPS positioning is to “see” the crops through images captured in three dimensions and process data. In this way, an exact x-ray of the state of the crops is obtained in real time and it is possible to decide at all times exactly what treatments need to be done on each part of the plant. It is estimated that during the duration of this high-precision agriculture project, up to 40% of phytosanitary products (20% of fertilizers) and 31% of annual fuels will be saved.