The deserts, areas where it hardly rainsThey were already present on the planet long before our ancestors walked on it. But they were not always in the same place.
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6,000 years ago, the Sahara desert, the largest desert in the world today, was an orchard, an immense meadow full of vegetation. The oscillations of the earth’s axis are the main responsible for the migration of the deserts.
Every 20,000 years, the monsoons change course, dumping rain in one place and causing drought in another. However, for a couple of centuries, and increasingly, human beings have become one of the main causes of the extension of deserts in the world.
Human activity is causing large areas of the planet to degrade at an accelerated rate, and are at risk of becoming new deserts where there was previously vegetation. Spain is one of the most worrying examples in the world.
According to the National Action Programs of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, about 74% of Spain is at risk of desertification and 18% is at high risk of becoming a desert irreversibly. Is there something that can be done? We must first understand how desertification occurs
The causes of desertification
According to its definition, desertification is the process by which vegetation disappears in a dry, arid or semi-arid area, such as grasslands or scrub areas.
When an existing desert expands, we do not speak of desertification, but of desertification. The term desertification only applies when there is a risk that an ecosystem that is not currently a desert will become one.
The human activity the main cause of desertification in places like Spain. These are the human activities that contribute to arid lands becoming deserts:
- Deforestation: Forest fires, which have broken records in this year 2022, are the main cause of deforestation in Spain. Some areas such as Galicia concentrate 50% of these fires. By losing forest cover, soil erosion increases and it loses its ability to retain water.
- The illegal exploitation of aquifers: the uncontrolled overexploitation of 24% of groundwater for use in agriculture is a serious problem in the main agricultural areas of Spain, affecting areas such as Los Arenales, Daimiel, Campo de Cartagena or the Doñana wetland , a World Heritage Site, which is in danger of disappearing.
- bad agricultural practices: irrigation by gravity and sprinklers that account for half of irrigation, crops without rotation that could prevent the loss of nutrients, unprotected soils during periods of drought and, above all, the unsustainable extension of irrigation in the driest areas of Europe , are direct causes of desertification.
Although in countries like Spain drought is a natural phenomenon, its impact can be exacerbated by human activities. Current climate change and rising temperatures bring more drought, more fires, more extreme stormswhich in turn produce greater erosion, and an accelerated loss of natural areas that act as a brake on desertification, such as wetlands.
erosion and loss of fertile soil are the unmistakable signs of desertification. According to the United Nations, more than 24 billion tons of fertile soil disappear each year. If no action is taken, 1.5 million km2 of agricultural land will be lost by 2050, an area equivalent to all of India’s arable land.
Short-termism, driven by political motivations to maintain unsustainable farms, condemns these territories to become deserts before the end of the century, in which, in the end, it will be impossible to maintain a viable agriculture. We all lose.
How you can help prevent desertification
The Sustainable Development Goals approved by the UN in 2015 advocate local solutions to stop desertification, making better use of fertile soils and water resources. Many of these measures are only within the reach of the regulatory power of governments. These are some of the techniques that can be used to avoid the worst consequences of desertification:
- Irrigation improvements: the elimination of gravity-fed irrigation techniques, highly inefficient and which still account for a quarter of irrigation in Spain, and the reduction of the risk of sprinkling would make it possible to limit agricultural water consumption.
- cover crops: For example, in olive and fruit farms, instead of using herbicides to eliminate other plants, combine them with crops that prevent erosion, increase sleep nutrients and conserve moisture.
- Crop optimization: Reduce or eliminate irrigation that is not sustainable due to climate or water resources, and establish a crop rotation that allows sleep to replenish critical nutrients removed during harvest.
- live barriers: terraced plots, plant barriers against wind and rain, and dune stabilization prevent erosion and protect plants. The forests that surround the crops are a way of protecting the soil.
The new one European Common Agricultural Policy (PAC) has as one of its objectives until 2027 the protection of the environment, landscapes and biodiversity, and a specific plan for the protection of the soil from the loss of nutrients, erosion and desertification.
It is up to national and regional governments to allocate the funds to make this a reality, yet agricultural regions often show little interest in regulation.
One possible solution is involve consumers in the fight against desertification through a labeling that allows to identify agricultural products that use irrigation in a sustainable way, as well as products derived from wood that do not collaborate with desertification. It is something that already happens with fish.
Unfortunately, the closest thing to this decision tool is the European label for organic products, although it abounds in the permitted use of fertilizers and pesticides, it does not include specific regulations that prevent desertification, beyond the imposition of crop rotation. Notably, hydroponic crops, which are much more efficient, cannot be labeled as organic.
Many fruits and vegetables and other forest products in Spain can come from farms that, for distinctive reasons, be it the illegal exploitation of aquifers, due to the extension of irrigation in areas where they are not sustainable, or due to failures in the protection of forests, are contributing to deforestation. However, consumers have no way to tell them apart.
We could decide not to consume strawberries from the south of Spain (a good part of which contributes to the disappearance of Doñana) or tomatoes from the Cartagena countryside, which are partly responsible for the death of the Mar Menor.
But by doing so, we would punish farms that do abide by the law and take care of the environment. The power that consumers have in avoiding an ecological disaster like desertification cannot be underestimated, but the right tools are necessary.
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