In 2011 Spain was the number one EU Member State concerning the number of hectares dedicated to organic farming. It increased by 11.76% that year and now includes 1,845,039 hectares. Almost all Spanish regions show increases in the area dedicated to this type of farming. The number of organic farmers reached the figure of 32,837, an increase of 18.23% over the previous year. Cereals, with 178,061 hectares, represent the biggest part in terms of cultivated area within the Spanish territory.
Since its beginnings, Spanish organic production has always been export-oriented, mainly due to strong consumer demand from Central European countries. It is estimated that 80% of the production is destined for export, mainly for EU countries (89.2%), especially Germany, France and the UK.
Spanish tastes for organic
The average national consumption of organic products is estimated at 35.4 kilos per year which indicates that every Spaniard consumes 35.4 kilos of organic products and spends about €29 euros on that demand. Organic foods now represent 1.9% of the total expenditure on food made by Spanish households (which is an increase in comparison to the 1.7% of the previous year).
At the same time, during the past year, spending on organic products has increased by 6.3%, with an increase of 8.4% in organic vegetables (these figures are particularly important in the context of a decrease of food expenditure of 1.6% for the same period).
Since its beginnings, Spanish organic production has always been export-oriented, mainly due to strong consumer demand from Central European countries.
The products most in demand are mainly eggs, olive oil, vegetables and fruits. Interestingly enough (in comparison to other EU countries), in Spain we can therefore observe that organic or ecological products are mainly seen as vegetarian food, since organic meat or animal products are rarely or not available in most organic shops (they are mostly distributed via Internet from farms in the northern parts of the country), and due to its scarce distribution they are quite expensive.
The profiles of organic farmers are quite diverse within the country’s’ territory. From the huge extensions of agriculture (vegetables, fruits, olives) in Andalucia, to small farmers in the Valencian region, cereal production in the inner parts of Spain, and animal husbandry (dairy farming in the North, sheep and goat husbandry in the interior and less inhabited parts of the country).
Therefore, also the distribution of organic products depends on the structural conditions of the region: In regions with monocultures, the distribution is easier to organise (and is mostly dedicated to exportation) than in the regions with intensive farming distributed throughout the area and where the region is at a distance from major markets. Local farmers’ markets exist but very often it is quite difficult for organic farmers first to enter and second to compete with conventional farming. Lately, there are local initiatives popping up all over the territory organising markets that only or mainly offer ecological products. Supermarkets of foreign origin offer organic products, but in most Spanish supermarket chains you will not find any goods which are organically produced.
The delicate economic situation in Spain seems not to be jeopardising the sector as a whole until now but makes it harder to invest in a sustainable project; although at the same time it seems to be a possible way out of high unemployment rates (especially of young people) due to the economic crisis in Spain. The problem is that many of those small organic projects lack initial funding or are started without any entrepreneurial perspective, so that there is quite some fluctuation to be observed.
Overcoming barriers to expansion
Another obstacle is the Spanish system of Organic Certification which differs from one region to the other. While for example there are a big variety of organic products offered in Catalonia, in the neighbouring region of Valencia, with a similar climate and landscape, many farmers experience bureaucratic problems or disincentives to regularise their organic production. In general, the current organic certification system favours the big productions, and demands the same (or more) paperwork of small family farms.
Partly (but not only) due to this situation, some of the farmers’ and consumer movements are looking for new ways of ensuring the quality of their production and products. One solution is to buy directly from the producer, yet it is not always a sustainable one, or does not bring enough customers to the farmer, or means quite some effort in marketing which is not always possible for a small farmer lacking good infrastructure. So another solution which recently is discussed at meetings of ecological movements within the organic sector is some form of Participatory Certification: “the process of generating credibility presupposes the joint participation of all segments interested in ensuring the quality of the final product and the production process”.
In general, the current organic certification system favours the big productions, and demands the same (or more) paperwork of small family farms.
Another obstacle for (organic) agriculture and farming in Spain is the policy of the Spanish authorities in favour of GMOs. Whereas across Europe an increasing number of countries are limiting or prohibiting genetically modified production, the Spanish authorities are welcoming experimental and/or commercial projects including genetically modified crops which in other EU countries would not be allowed. Yet slowly but steadily, municipalities and regions all over Spain begin to understand the threat to their local agriculture – still a very important sector in rural Spain – and declare themselves GMO-free zones.
Finally, I’d like to present four examples of movements in the Spanish organic sector which represent current developments and resistances:
- An increasing number of networks of seed exchange to contribute to the conservation of agro-biodiversity, organised within the national “Red de Semillas” network;
- Agroecological movements developed on a local or regional level, e.g. the Agroecology Network of Castellón (XAC). In general, it is a network for any kind of information related to agriculture and ecology, and it organises trainings and workshops, and other events such as seed exchanges and organic markets;
- Recently the Food Sovereignty movement, related to the Vía Campesina small farmers movement is gaining attention throughout Spain;
- Food or Consumer cooperatives appear within those movements, or in the context of the 15M movement, on the one hand, in order to self-organise the distribution of organic food, and on the other hand, to create a shorter distance between the producers and the consumers; both also contributing to more competitive prices of organic goods, especially important in times of economic crisis.