Theo Hernando, general secretary of the Association of Farmers and Ranchers of Canary Islands (Asaga), deals in depth with the blows that Tenerife’s primary sector is receiving, such as the effects of a drought aggravated by climate change or the serious losses in local potato production. The interview takes place in Valle de Guerra, an eminently agricultural area of La Laguna, at a point from which you can see the Valle Molina pond, in the neighboring municipality of Tegueste, empty due to the lack of water for irrigation. Despite the bad news that is accumulating about the sector, Hernando highlights that there is also positive: the increase in avocado crops, the stability of the cheese sector and the high quality of Tenerife wines.
How is global warming being felt in the primary sector?
This year especially we have suffered many adverse episodes due to extreme temperatures that can be associated with climate change or the climate cycles themselves. At a global level, there are increasing signs that it may be climate change. This year we have been suffering very high temperatures since March, which has caused tremendous damage to the crops. The ponds are so empty, also because the water demand has increased considerably and there has been no time to fill them. The harvests have come early. That’s what happened with the vintage. We have also suddenly had a large banana production that has caused a drop in prices. There are multiple consequences that the repeated heat waves have had.
Due to extreme temperatures, 60% of local potato production has been lost this year. What other products has this happened in?
In general it is affecting all crops. Any alteration in temperatures affects the vegetative rhythm of the plants and especially those that are more adapted to the cold, such as fruit trees in temperate zones: apple trees, pear trees, apricot trees… All of these trees are of a warm climate. temperate and the leaf is deciduous, so this alteration means that they do not rest well during the winter. Here I include the vineyard, one of the most important crops in the Canary Islands, which if it does not have a good winter stop, does not gain enough strength for the following year. This causes the plants to have little vigor in the lower areas. This lack of vegetation results in a reduction in grape production, because if it is weakened, it will not produce fruit in quantity or quality.
Farmers grow potatoes at the same time and harvest them at the same time; we have to program better
In some places the harvest was brought forward more than a month. What does it impact?
It was brought forward because the fruit ripened earlier. It is a fruit that needs a period of fattening and ripening on the tree or plant, as also happens with bananas. With these temperatures, the sugars transform faster and therefore it must be collected earlier. In the case of bananas, everything had to be picked in one week, and this concentration makes it a logistical problem and causes prices to sink. In any case, an advance in harvests in some crops can be positive, such as in the case of wine. This way it can be distributed in different areas and not always between August and September.
Why is there not enough potato production to supply the local market?
You have to go to the root of the problem. Farmers grow crops all at once and harvest at the same time. A solution would be to schedule the plantings and divide them into zones so that this does not happen. Plan it so that it is planted and harvested in different months. Many farmers have stopped growing potatoes because it is not profitable. Since 2015 we have lost almost 1,500 hectares of potato cultivation in the Canary Islands. Recovering potato plantations will depend on whether they become profitable.
England closed its market for a single beetle specimen. Would this happen in the Canary Islands? Are there so many controls and transparency here?
In the Canary Islands all the surveillance posts are quite strict. These types of situations can come the other way at any given time. Transparency must be key for any government. What England is suffering now can happen in Spain. The speed of the English authorities is to be praised despite everything that harms them. In any case, there are many other areas of the country that produce potatoes that have nothing to do with Kent County, where the Colorado beetle appeared, so it only affects a specific area. Even so, the Canarian Government will request additional conditions for the entry of tubers from the United Kingdom. All containers will be inspected, something that was not done before, and they will be asked to arrive in new bags. The beetle is in the bush and where it can get is through the sac, not the tuber. The Canary Islands are going to be far-sighted in this regard.
Abandonment in mid-range and high areas causes fires to approach houses
How did the fire affect the primary sector?
It has caused a lot of damage to the midlands and high areas, which were already very abandoned. That was one of the problems why the fire came so close to the houses: the abandonment of crops. It also greatly affected beekeeping. 3,500 hives were lost and those that were saved will not have as much pollen or flowers available as they had in other years. Honey production is going to be significantly reduced. In agricultural areas, the damage has been to infrastructure. More people from the midlands need to go to recover those farms and keep them in production. another effect straight of the fire is the stress that farm animals have suffered. Many farmers comment that the animals are not producing as they should due to the drastic changes they have undergone. In short, there is still much to suffer due to the collateral effects of the fire.
What are the proposals that Asaga proposes to end the abandonment of the countryside in Tenerife?
We demand the demands of the sector at the highest level, in the most important meetings. In addition, we provide training and information to the entire agricultural sector. We try to take everything that encompasses the agricultural sector and sometimes translate it so that it reaches people in an understandable way. We also want people to see themselves represented in us and think that we speak on their behalf.
For you right now, is it profitable to invest in the field?
Yes, it is profitable, especially when done with a business vision. What you cannot do is set up an agricultural company without having any idea what you are getting into. If I don’t consider what my costs and income are, obviously I’m going to last two years, they’re going to give me help and I’m going to bury it. The first thing you have to do is train. The Cabildo and the Government of the Canary Islands They make a lot of information available to farmers and ranchers or those who want to be farmers, in addition to agricultural associations, which is what we are for. Then it is true that business can go wrong: you can have a great idea and it doesn’t work in the market.
The consumer wants seasonal products at any time of the year. Is this trend harming the sector?
As consumers, we are the ones who manage the market price. If a majority of people are willing to pay high amounts for a food, companies will put it at that high price. Avocado is a seasonal product and cannot be imported into the Canary Islands due to the order of March 12, 1987, which establishes phytosanitary protection measures to prevent more pests from entering a series of crops. In addition, it is also done to protect local crops, because otherwise it would not be grown here. Avocado production in the Archipelago is throughout the year except July and August. If during these months when there is no production people continue to demand it, then the price goes up.
Farm animals have suffered stress from the fire; they don’t produce as they should
We return to climate change. We live in a time of water emergency. Tenerife’s ponds are at a historic low with a volume of 12% over their capacity. What happens to the water?
A perfect storm formed and many factors came together at the same time. The increase in temperature since March came very prematurely and farmers began to water as if it were summer. The problem we are suffering in Tenerife is that we now see that the infrastructure we had is not enough. The population and tourism have grown at a faster rate than basic infrastructure has grown. The water that was normally intended for irrigation is being directed as a priority to the population, so farmers no longer have availability of that water. In some cases, regenerated water that comes from very specific treatment plants can be used; the rest cannot be used. The water purified in the first phase cannot be used for agriculture, it must have a second treatment phase and a tertiary phase, which is what allows it to be used as irrigation water.
With all this news it gives the impression that the primary sector is in the UVI. Does the field generate any good news today?
Of course. Avocado and other tropical fruit trees are increasing the cultivation area, exceeding 2,000 hectares. The avocado, even with all the problems it has due to theft and lack of water, is a crop that is establishing itself in the Canary Islands. And they are coming out with tremendous quality. Then we have the cheeses, recognized internationally and maintaining stable productions. It is one of the few sectors in which there is a generational change. And there is the wine sector, which although it is true that many cultivated areas have disappeared, is reaching levels of quality and global recognition that are to be applauded. No wine from Spain right now is reaching the level of wine from the Canary Islands. That is something to be proud of in this sector.