Ancient groves of olives 'ruined by intensive farming'

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Intensive farming is changing the olive groves of southern Europe from havens of wildlife to agents of soil erosion, habitat loss and desertification, a new report suggests.

The ancient groves of Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece, with their gnarled old trees and stone walls, are being replaced with olive "plantations" where frequent tillage, pesticide use and irrigation are the norm, according to the report from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and BirdLife International.

This intensive olive cultivation is degrading the soil across the Mediterranean region, the report says, with up to 80 million tons of topsoil being lost every year from olive plantations in the Spanish region of Andalucia alone. The Guadalen reservoir in Jaen, Andalucia, has been silted up by soil run-off from olive plantations.

The report also shows that irrigated olive plantations are expanding in areas with serious water shortages such as Crete, Puglia in Italy, and Andalucia. In 1997 the Jaen area had a water deficit of 480 million cubic metres, and it is estimated that 300 million cubic metres was consumed on irrigating olive farms.

The process is being driven by the European Union subsidy regime, the report says, alleging that almost the whole £1.4bn EU Common Agricultural Policy budget for olives is spent on production subsidies. These encourage intensification of production, irrigation and the expansion of olive growing.

Reform of the regime is overdue ­ EU agriculture ministers agreed in 1998 on the need for reform of olive subsidies and established an interim subsidy regime intended to run until November this year ­ but at a meeting in Luxembourg today Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece will seek to delay reform for five years.

Giovanna Pisano, agriculture policy officer of the RSPB, the UK partner of BirdLife International, said: "WWF and BirdLife International urge agriculture ministers to reject delay and to take a firm decision now to reform the olive regime. Payments that reward intensive production should be abolished, and replaced with flat-rate payments for land cultivated."

Richard Perkins, WWF's agriculture policy officer, said: "Intensive olive farming is a major cause of one of the biggest environmental problems facing Europe today ... EU subsidies are driving the environment to ruin."