Spain’s olive oil producers are devastated by the worst drought on record

Jaen province

The province of Jaén produces half of all Spanish oil

Francisco Elvira weaves his way through his burnt olive grove, pausing to inspect the stunted fruit on the nearly bare trees.

“Look at her,” he says desperately. “They should be bursting with olives just before harvest now. But they’re empty. And that’s the crop that should produce the oil in the supermarkets next year.”

The fertile olive-tree-filled plains that stretch across southern Spain have made this country the world’s largest producer of olive oil, which accounts for about half of the world’s supply.

But devastated by the worst drought on record, Spain’s so-called ‘green gold’ is becoming increasingly rare. This year’s yield has already fallen by about a third – and there is still no sign of rain.

At the Interóleo factory in Jaén, a province that produces half of Spain’s oil, it’s pumped into glass and plastic bottles that run down the conveyor belt to be labeled ‘Produce of Spain’.

But the factory, which exports to countries like the UK, is experiencing a slump in output and rising prices, exacerbating the global food crisis.

Juan Gadeo

Juan Gadeo believes this vital sector for Spain is under threat

“Buyers are already paying a third more than last year – but the drought will exacerbate that,” says Juan Gadeo, the head of the cooperative, who believes this vital sector for Spain is now at risk.

“With the downturn, we may have to lay off some employees. There is a feeling of depression and insecurity. Another year like this would be a complete disaster.”

A similar picture emerges across the agricultural sector, with recent research showing that parts of the Iberian Peninsula are the driest in 1,200 years.

Spanish farmers have been planting more sunflowers since the beginning of the year to offset the loss of sunflower oil from Ukraine – the world’s largest producer, where the war has caused production to fall drastically.

But a flower that worships the sun also needs the blessings of rain – and there is none, resulting in a mass of shriveled plants that produce neither seed nor oil.

Isabel Villegas

Sunflower growers like Isabel Villegas are struggling

As she rips dead sunflowers from her parched fields, Isabel Villegas considers trying again.

“If it doesn’t rain by the end of the year, there’s no point in planting more,” she says. “It would be like throwing money on the land with no harvest. And there is no rain forecast for the time being.”

A recent report by the Global Drought Observatory concluded that Europe is suffering from its worst drought in 500 years.

Several countries across the continent are grappling with wildfires and heatwaves, with Spain being particularly hard hit. According to the European Forest Fire Information System, more than 270,000 hectares have burned down here this year.

The extreme heat and lack of rainfall have led to a dramatic decline in Spain’s natural water reserves. The Vinuela reservoir near Malaga is at just over 10% of its capacity.

Elsewhere, medieval waterfront villages long buried under rivers have been uncovered as the water evaporates.

The Spanish government is now expanding desalination plants and building new ones to use the ocean to alleviate water shortages.

At Campo de Dalias, next to the coastal town of Almeria, we were led into the cave-like facility that pumps seawater.

The salt from half is extracted to create purified water, while the other half absorbs the extra salt and then is dumped back into the ocean where it causes no environmental damage.

The plant produces 90,000 cubic meters of clean water per day, but is to be expanded to around 130,000 cubic meters within four years.

The fields around the facility are full of plastic sheeting, which serve as greenhouses for the fruit and vegetables that grow below.

Half of the water produced in the desalination plant is used here to water the plants. Spain produces more fruit and vegetables than any other country in the European Union.

That, some scientists say, is part of the problem: in times of acute water scarcity, this country simply can no longer afford to be, as it’s often called, “the garden of Europe.”

Julia Martinez

Julia Martinez believes the country’s current water management model is unsustainable

“The total area of ​​irrigated land in Spain has increased both legally and illegally over the last few decades,” says Julia Martinez of the New Water Culture Foundation.

She believes the country’s current water management model is unsustainable.

“Irrigated land consumes 85% of all water resources. With the remaining 15%, it is not possible to cover all the remaining water needs, some of which have a higher priority.

Unless we change the balance, we cannot improve the health of our rivers or adapt to climate change.”

Cracked soil, dried up rivers, withered harvests: Spain’s rich country is impoverished by a man-made climate emergency. On our planet and in our pockets, the cost of doing so is increasing.

And on the beautiful but parched plains of Andalusia, there is still no rain forecast.

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