The garden of Europe: Spain is the leading producer of fruit and vegetables in the EU
Fruits and vegetables constitute the first sector of Spanish agriculture. The latest report prepared by the Spanish Federation of associations of exporting producers of fruit, vegetables, flowers and live plants (Fepex) indicates that this production is around 27 million tons, of which 54% corresponds to vegetables, 38% to fruits and 8% to potatoes. Approximately 40% of fruit and vegetable production is dedicated to the domestic market and the remaining 60% to exports, which last year increased by 7.7% compared to 2019, amounting to 14,594 million euros.
The area dedicated to its production exceeds 800,000 hectares, only 5% of the cultivated area in Spain. The value of fruit and vegetable production in the EU27 as a whole in 2020 reached 73,091.69 million euros, 10% more than the average (2015-2019).
Spain, with 15,188 million euros last year, represents 21% of that total value, according to MAP data.
It is a sector that has many strengths. “Spain is a great producer throughout the year and has a great diversity of production areas that allows a wide variety of products,” he says. Jose Maria Pozancos, director of Fepex. The export of vegetables is made up of more than 92 products and that of fruits by 120.
Marketing extends throughout the year, with a constant supply, which allows maintaining a permanent relationship with customers. And we are talking about large volumes of production and export, with the capacity to supply all types of consumers and markets. What’s more, The sector has shown that it knows how to adapt to new demands in terms of quality, safety and forms of presentation of the products.
“We are the main component of a healthy diet and at affordable prices,” says Pozancos. He also points out another important piece of information, normally little mentioned, and that has to do with the “fulfillment of two objectives of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP): We guarantee the safety of supplies and we offer a diet at affordable prices for consumers».
The sector is characterized by its diversity of areas and production models, from family companies and individuals, to small and large farms.«The fundamental axis are the producer organizations, a figure recognized by the PAC. They are grouped to market in common, “says the director of Fepex.
Normally this sector has been excluded from CAP aid, although “there are operating funds that require a contribution from the farmer of a percentage equivalent to the aid. They are intended for investments and quality improvements. In the case of Spain, aid worth 300 million euros is expected“, Add. This is a direct benefit, a measure that allows investments to be programmed very well and has a clear effect on improving the product.
The main challenge facing the sector is that of improving competitiveness, since with the globalization of the market it has strong competition from Morocco and the Mediterranean countries. «The sector is structured in producer organizations that carry out the sale in common and manage the funds. This model of organization and management of aid is one of the cornerstones of the Spanish sector”, they indicate from Fepex. «Distribution is becoming more concentrated and there are asymmetries in bargaining power.
In Spain, the shelves are well stocked and at very good prices, there is great wealth, but there are asymmetries partly caused by the globalization of the community market”, points out its director. They compete in prices with Morocco or Tunisia, and “one of the characteristics of the sector is the strong volatility of prices, which cannot be corrected, it is the game of supply and demand that determines prices”, he adds.
The EU was the recipient of 93.5% of the total sold abroad, which shows the dependence on the community market, while exports beyond Europe remain at very low percentages, with only 3.7%. A situation that is unlikely to change in the immediate future, since “we are talking about perishable products, with very precise transport logistics. It is difficult to go to other distant countries because, in addition, the great potential markets such as the United States or China have large farms”, reflects Pozancos.
Digitization in the automation of production is also another challenge, as it means “better management for production and a substantial improvement in the characteristics of employment,” says Pozancos. it implies a more technical job, more permanent and more inclusive, “because there is a very significant incorporation of new promotions of agricultural engineers, mostly women.” We are talking about a sector that generates 350,00 jobs for others, in annual computation, since there is a lot of temporary work.
An important fact to take into account in this sector is the commitment to innovation in plant breeding, in which Spain is a world power. “Here there are more than 50 research centers for new varieties, of which more than 20 are for fruits and vegetables,” says Antonio Villaroel, director of the National Association of Plant Breeders (Anove). The companies dedicated to plant breeding invested last year in Spain in R+D+i, approximately 20% of their turnover. The average cost to put a new plant variety on the market is between 1 and 1.5 million euros, and it takes 10 to 12 years to achieve it.
The data from the FAO and the WHO predict a population growth in 2050, which will go from the current 7,000 million to 9,000 million inhabitants, with which it is estimated that an increase in production of 70% is necessary. And there is no more land in good condition to be cultivated. That is to say, it is necessary to be more efficient cultivating the same land or even less, also adapting to the new climatic conditions.
“What is being done and what is being sought now in the field of improvement is vital for the coming years,” says Villaroel. One of the aspects in which more work is done in terms of innovation is in the development of disease and pest resistant varieties, as well as climatic varieties. The issue of taste is also of concern. «There is a justified perception that fruits and vegetables have lost flavor. In summer, in the town, the tomato tastes good to us, and we want it to have the same flavor in winter. But that tomato has to travel and one of the prices paid for a product to resist is its flavour,” he points out. Added to all this is the need for healthier products. “The consumer is very sensitive to products having more antioxidants and vitamins,” the director of Anove gives as an example.
The Cerdá Institute has just published a study that quantifies for the first time in Spain the contributions of plant breeding. The improvement of seeds and plants contributes to the Spanish economy almost 1,000 million euros per year, according to said report. Beyond this economic impact, plant breeding also has far-reaching consequences for agricultural development, by significantly increasing employment. The gross added value generated by the breeding sector has made it possible to create about 428,000 jobs between 1990 and 2017 (almost 16,000 jobs per year). 26% were generated directly, 34% indirectly and 40% induced.
Territorial, social and economic structure
The producing and marketing sector of fresh fruit and vegetables contributes significantly to the territorial, social and economic structure of the rural world. “It contributes to the development of the rural world, fixes the population in these areas,” highlights the director of Fepex. This sector is characterized by variety and diversity, both in agroclimatic regions and in producing areas and agricultural systems, which allows it to be present in all the autonomous communities and offer the market a large number of products in terms of species but also varieties, production methods and formats within each section.
Due to the intensive nature of labor and the high added value generated by its productions, it also contributes to the economic structuring of the regions. The direct employment generated by the fruit and vegetable sector is estimated at 280,000 workers in the annual calculation of affiliates to the Social Security Special Agrarian System of Employed Workers, which represents more than half of the national agricultural employment, estimated at 409,113 workers on an annual basis according to data from the Ministry of Employment and Social Security.
To the direct employment generated by fruit and vegetable production, we must add the figure of 150,000 workers in handling tasks at origin and other complementary activities, so it can be concluded that the sector accounts for more than 50% of agricultural employment national.