Fruit Today magazine talked to Loli Molina, an agricultural engineer at PROEXPORT and an expert in Sustainability, who talked about the member companies’ road map.
At Proexport, a surprising number of initiatives are taken. Could you talk to us about their general remit?
Everything started off when our entrepreneurs established the idea of promoting agri-innovative practices that contributed to obtaining tangible results on the subject of environmental sustainability and business competitiveness as their main work priority.
We said to them: forget the marketing, tell us everything you do. And this is how our “I+S Pro” (Innovation and Sustainability Proexport) initiative was born. It is a type of visual handbook of innovative technologies and sustainable agricultural practices, presented by the professionals from our companies in the first person, with total transparency.
The format uses fresh, entertaining micro-reports on video, which we have broadcast on television, at events and on social media with great success. On our website and YouTube channel, proexporttv, you can find anything from precision farming or robotics to reducing the water and carbon footprints. It is all real, there are no actors involved.
Society is interested in how we produce our vegetables, but we have to tell them about it from inside the sector! A large, Technicolor photo on the supermarket shelves isn’t that believable…
These two centre points, innovation and sustainability have multiple facets; could you give me some more details on a critical subject for crops from Murcia, such as water efficiency?
As everyone knows, the Segura basin has a structural water deficit that requires external contributions. For decades, we have been carrying out significant investments in infrastructures and advanced irrigation systems. Today, the Region of Murcia has an irrigation rate of 86.13% using efficient localised irrigation, much higher than the Spanish average, saving millions and millions of litres of water more than the average.
The water from the Tajo-Segura Transfer, perhaps the most efficient and sustainable water infrastructure in the country, is the keystone to our irrigation system. In the Transfer an intelligent mixture of irrigation water from different sources are linked together (basin, underground, reused and desalinated), which give life and sustainability to the Market Garden of Europe. Farmers and companies are managing a very expensive and scarce water, which they give back to society in the form of healthy food (at reasonable prices) and thousands and thousands of decent jobs. Many people call it “water efficiency”; I prefer to talk about “water sustainability.”
What steps do these companies use to reduce water consumption for irrigation?
Let me give you some interesting examples: we have extended the use of humidity probes and sensors to obtain data in order to minimise the irrigation amounts and to prevent any possible nitrate losses due to leaching into the aquifers. We also have floating covers on the reservoirs, which prevent up to 20% of evaporation of the water, improving the conductivity and we have implanted recirculation systems of the nutrient solution in hydroponic greenhouse crops, that is to say irrigation water and fertilisers. Additionally, rainwater and dew catchment systems have been incorporated to the greenhouses and nebulisation irrigation has been adapted to some crops.
We are all trying to minimise the water footprint of the crops that we produce. Every drop counts.
Climate change is a reality, and it will be, according to the scientists, significantly worse for the Mediterranean region. How is this affecting farming in the Region?
Its impacts could vary in intensity from one area to another. We are seeing the increase in frequency of droughts and high rates of evapotranspiration in the ecosystems, along with greater amounts of much more extreme rainfall: last March there was the most rainfall from the historical series in the Southeast of Spain! We must strengthen the water storage and distribution network in the South East and throughout Spain, interconnecting basins, purifying much more water in the cities and completing this with green solutions.
The rise in temperatures will affect the development and yield of vegetable productions, a greater incidence of some diseases and pests, as well as a lack of hours of cold in woody crops. In general, it will be more complicated to maintain the current quality and quantity of productions. Our challenge, and everyone else’s, is to manage this with the minimum impact on the climate.
What practices are being carried out on this aspect?
We are working side by side with the seed companies and the research centres on plant genomes to develop fruit and vegetable varieties that are tolerant to drought, while resistant to pests and diseases. We have extended the application of green fertilisation, which reduces the mineral nitrogen content in the next crop by 20-25% and therefore, decreases the emissions to the atmosphere.
We are seriously committed to the energy efficiency of our production systems. The energy that we use is a green, clean energy, to contribute to the decrease in the Greenhouse Effect Gases emitted by our activity.
We are also leading innovation projects such as NUVES (Nutrición Vegetal Sostenible/Sustainable Vegetable Nutrition), where we are testing out a fertilisation protocol that is low in nitrogen while maintaining soil fertility, which reduces the carbon footprint of the crops.
Conservation and biodiversity are two concepts that go hand in hand. Are there any initiatives in this area?
Of course. You will find that our companies have planted hedges on the embankments of the reservoirs and hedgerows along the edges of the crop farms, in order to prevent soil erosion and to be used as shelter for pollinator and beneficial insects.
In open air crops, such as watermelons and melons, farmers use reservoir plants to attract beneficial insects that are the natural enemies of the bad bugs, fighting in a biological way. In order to protect the native fauna, such as birds and other species, they have created ponds and structures using stones that shelter the region’s biodiversity.
Leaving a smaller plastic footprint for the planet is essential today. What is Proexport doing on this subject?
We are working with a group of member companies on two innovation projects. One is the ACBD project (Acolchados Biodegradables/Biodegradable Padding) that seeks to speed up the breaking down of the bioplastics used for padding the crops in different conditions and production areas in the Region of Murcia, by using a combination of cultural techniques. And ACBD+, the second phase of the previous project, which is carrying out trials to achieve this by using native micro-organisms.
With biodegradable padding, we save water and prevent weeds from growing without using chemicals.
With so much ‘revolution’, sustainability for farmers must also be economic. Can this be achieved in an inflationist context with a very concerning rise in inputs, where it seems that only the production is taking on these costs?
It is very complicated, but sustainability does not take crises into account. It is better to embrace it and move forward, slowly but surely. The future of the agricultural sector, at least in the western world, is linked to innovative, sustainable farming, without giving up the quality. The companies that take on a leading role in both questions will succeed in the future and this is the reason we are taking it so seriously.