Assessment and recommendations

Spain is the second-largest country in the European Union (EU), with a climatic diversity that has allowed for the development of a variety of crop and livestock activities in an agricultural area that covers more than half of its territory. The contribution of the agro-food sector to the economy – with 5.2% of total value added – is above the OECD and EU averages.

Agro-food exports represent 18.3% of total exports of goods for Spain, a share higher than for many peer countries. Spain’s agriculture and food industry is productive, competitive, and successful in international markets. Farmers in export-oriented sectors are able to adapt and respond to international trends and demands, both in Spain’s traditional export markets and in emerging new markets. This is evidenced by the growth of several strong export-oriented sectors, including conventional and organic fruit and vegetables, which are mostly sold in the EU market, and pig meat, which is exported mainly to Asian markets.

Agriculture is an important part of the local economy and source of income in many regions of Spain. The development of agricultural production has in many cases driven the development of supporting industries and services, such as processing, distribution and research. Examples include the clusters of supporting industries around organic agriculture and greenhouse horticulture, which are important motors of local growth and employment in some regions.

The productivity gains and export growth in Spanish agriculture have come together with and are the result of a shift away from small family farms toward a more commercial farming model. This is evidenced by an increase in the number of large farms (with 100 hectares or more) and in their share of the total agricultural area, as well as by the decrease in the work done by farm owners and family workers, to some extent replaced by contracted labour, including more immigrant workers. Between 2009 and 2020, the number of farms of less than 100 hectares fell by almost 65 000 or 7%, while the number of larger farms grew by over 4 500 or 9%. Smaller farms tend to be managed by older farmers, and their reduction highlights the generational renewal challenge that is not exclusive of Spain.

Spain has shown a proactive approach to harness agricultural and rural development policy for improving the sector’s gender balance, including through legal reforms and payments that target women. The 2011 Shared Ownership Law was a significant step to increase the visibility and active role of women in agriculture, giving them an equal status with their partners in family farms. Over ten years after this reform, the number of female farm managers has increased, but female managers still represent only 29% of the total. The number of farms registered under the shared ownership model represents only 0.1% of the total number of farms in Spain, well below the original expectations. This deserves a deeper examination of the causes and difficulties to comply with some of the requirements of the law.

Spain is one of only two EU Member States that include in their new Strategic Plan (CSP) for the 2023-27 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) the objective of improving participation of women in farming, and one of five that propose specific measures supporting rural women. The main measure is an increase of 15% in the complementary direct payment for young farmers (of 40 years or less) if the beneficiary is female and owns or co-owns the farm.

Even if it has slowed down in the last decade, agricultural total factor productivity has for long been the main driver of Spain’s agricultural output growth. However, the OECD Agri-Environmental indicators show that the sector’s good performance from the perspective of productivity, output and exports has not been exempt from sustainability concerns.

Spain’s agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions grew between 2013 and 2020, even as the emissions level of the whole economy declined. Agriculture represents 14% of total emissions in Spain, an increase from 11% in 2000. The productivity gains in recent years have allowed to reduce the average emission intensity of the sector but have not been sufficient to revert total emission growth. In its National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan 2021-30, Spain has set ambitious GHG reduction goals, including a target for the agriculture sector, which must reduce its GHG emissions by 18% with respect to 2005.

The important expansion of the pig meat sector and the strong increase in pig livestock numbers has brought about an increase in GHG and ammonia emissions, which has resulted in a consistent failure to meet Spain’s ammonia emission ceilings. Fertiliser use has also increased in recent years, as have the nitrogen and phosphorus surpluses. Pollution from these nutrients is impairing the quality of Spain’s ground and surface waters, increasing the already high levels of water stress, and threatening important ecosystems.

Addressing these problems has been prioritised in Spain’s agri-environmental policies, including the CSP for the 2023-27 CAP and the measures promoted under the Spanish Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan (which uses EU funding to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic). Some of the efforts that Spain is undertaking include the development and revision of the regulatory framework for the environmental sustainability of livestock farming, a new regulation on sustainable nutrition in agricultural soils, and the development of a registry of Best Available Techniques in livestock farms (ECOGAN) and an electronic farm notebook for monitoring fertiliser application at the farm level.

The innovation system in Spain has delivered productivity and competitiveness in world markets. However, it seems to have underdelivered in some areas of environmental performance and in adaptation to climate change. Spain’s innovation has had a moderate performance relative to other EU countries, with heterogeneity among Autonomous Communities (ACs). The Spanish Agriculture Knowledge and Innovation System (AKIS) is better in science than in developing innovation and facilitating adoption. The main obstacles to harnessing innovation are the low public and private investments, the fragmentation of the AKIS, and a low co-ordination between the national and regional administrations.

Innovation and digital technologies are strong tools to address the environmental sustainability challenges, but they require public and private investment under an ambitious strategy that includes all policy levers: from innovation funding to agricultural and environmental policy incentives. This strategy also needs to be supported by a system to collect data for monitoring and evaluation that allows self-assessment by farmers and other actors and enables policy assessment and implementation by the government.

Spain has made important progress in reducing the rural-urban gap in access to digital technologies. However, differences persist between rural and urban areas in access to high quality broadband and in digital use and skills, often linked to farmers’ age and farms’ size. Further reducing this gap is critical to ensure that digital becomes an enabling technology that, as in other sectors, fosters innovation in all aspects of the agro-food sector.

There is a significant risk of pluviometry reduction due to climate change in many regions in Spain, reducing the average annual rainfall and increasing the frequency of acute droughts. This trend has been affecting the Spanish agriculture for decades and is expected to continue in the future. Its impact is already visible in many locations. It is not surprising that the availability and distribution of water have long been a matter of concern in Spain, while water quality is also becoming a growing and interrelated concern. The level of water stress continues to be one of the highest in the OECD; and in October 2022, Spain registered the lowest groundwater levels for that month in a decade (MITERD, 2022[1]). The expansion of irrigated agriculture has traditionally been a response to climate dryness; however, as agriculture is the origin of 80% of water demand, it imposes much pressure on the resource. At the same time, agriculture is one of the sectors most impacted if less water is available.

Spanish water policies have evolved throughout the decades, from exclusively being concerned with managing and distributing water quantities across the territory, to giving greater emphasis to quality and environmental aspects. Spain dedicated significant public resources in the past to expand irrigation, but in the last two decades shifted the policy effort to the modernisation of irrigation infrastructure. This has resulted in an important increase in the use of localised methods (such as drip irrigation, which currently is used in over half of the irrigated area) and a decrease of 1 403 cubic hectometres in the volume of water distributed to farms between 2000 and 2018. The total public investments by national and regional authorities on irrigation modernisation and transformation were of EUR 3.8 billion between 2000 and 2021. Additional public investments of over EUR 800 million to further modernise irrigation systems are planned for the coming years in the framework of the Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan (RTRP) and the rural development plan for the 2023-27 CAP. These investments will be subject to environmental standards, with a prioritisation of actions that use new technologies to generate water and energy savings.

The irrigation modernisation programmes have brought benefits, such as reduced abstraction, increased production, and a more efficient use of fertilisers through the use of fertigation. At the same time, multiple international studies have noted that irrigation efficiency improvements can be associated with a higher water consumption, and the evidence suggests that technology modernisation policies should be accompanied by other policies to control water demand, cap abstractions or limit the irrigated area. In the case of Spain, the total irrigated area has constantly expanded in the last two decades, growing by 17% between 2002 and 2021. The lack of a comprehensive evaluation of the impact of this large public investment programme makes it difficult to assess its effectiveness in reducing water pressures.

The OECD Council Recommendation on Water calls for promoting water use efficiency to alleviate pressure on all surface and groundwater resources, taking into account the need for groundwater recharge and environmental flows. In Spain, the agriculture authorities in charge of irrigation policies have no influence over the volume of water supplied to farms. This is authorised by the river basin authorities, based on the availability of the resource and users’ entitlements, in particular through the irrigation communities of farmers in each river basin. The efforts of the agriculture authorities in irrigation policy thus concentrate on increasing efficiency at the irrigation point. Efforts are made to co-ordinate the planning of irrigation modernisation works with the basin authorities: prior to drafting the project for an irrigation work, the basin authority is requested to report on the availability of water. Once the work is completed, the basin authority is notified so that it can act accordingly.

The recent establishment of a National Irrigation Board (Mesa Nacional del Regadío) is a welcome step towards a broader approach and increased co-ordination. It will promote co-operation, consultation, analysis, and information exchange among the authorities at the national and regional levels, river basin authorities, users, environmental organisations and other stakeholders.

In Spain, all small groundwater abstractions of less than 7 000 m3/per year must be registered, but they do not require a permit, unless they are in water bodies at risk. Illegal abstractions are an additional element of pressure on the groundwater reserves; yet, the extent of the problem is not fully known due to the lack of official data. Efforts should be made to quantify and understand the dimensions of the problem, and to ensure an agile enforcement (i.e. closing of illegal wells). Illegal abstractions are a potential loophole for a coherent, comprehensive and effective water and irrigation policy.

Around 20% to 35% of ground and surface water bodies is at risk from diffuse pollution from bad agricultural practices, among other sources. High nitrate concentrations especially affect groundwater bodies. Eutrophication from excess phosphorus is also affecting the quality of water bodies, with the Mar Menor saltwater lagoon as its most visible example. In some areas, particularly in the Mediterranean, the quality of groundwater has also been affected by salinisation driven by the over-abstraction for irrigation and other uses. Policy efforts in Spain have focused on promoting a more efficient application of fertilisers and on actions targeted to most vulnerable areas such as the Mar Menor watershed.

Water prices can be an important part of the policy mix to manage water resources, address negative externalities and improve the financial sustainability of infrastructures and services. Information on the water prices established by the basin authorities in Spain is scattered and hard to find. The lack of data makes it difficult to assess the extent to which costs are recovered and prices reflect water scarcity, as well as the prevailing pricing methods and the extent to which irrigation water is metered and priced according to volume. Since 2009, the installation of meters and volumetric pricing is required for any irrigation infrastructure that is modernised using government subsidies. Water pricing is not only a good instrument to better allocate water according to its current scarcity, but also a good signal to induce private innovation towards the best adapted responses to climate change, be it in terms of irrigation efficiency, crop mix or others. In general, water data in Spain, including data on water pricing, and water use and consumption, is not available at a single database.

As agriculture is the most important user of water, irrigation communities play a particularly important role in water management at the river basin level. Irrigators sit with other stakeholders in the governing and management bodies of the river basin authorities, which make decisions on water management. This model of broad user participation has been in place for a long time and contributes to peer control and monitoring. However, the importance of irrigation water in some river basins may give a dominant role to irrigation communities. To ensure the representation of other users and voices such as environmental groups, civil society or the scientific community, the decisions on water entitlements are a matter of state level competence, and the number of representatives from the different users in the governing and management bodies is regulated by law.

The current situation of water scarcity and risk for water quality and ecosystems, already exacerbated by the impact of climate change, call for a paradigm change, both from the authorities at all administration levels and from the users. In August 2022, the government launched a preliminary public consultation towards a reform of the Spanish water law. This legal reform is an opportunity for Spain to broaden the discussion and the institutions to a diversity of actors, engaging the agricultural sector according to its responsibilities, in order to better align Spain with the OECD recommendations and the EU Water Framework Directive, and ultimately promote the necessary paradigm change.

Irrigation has been a cornerstone of the development of Spanish agriculture and of national agricultural policy programmes; the differences in yield between irrigated and rainfed production are significant. The direction of water policy has evolved to give greater consideration to environmental aspects. While irrigation works and other agricultural practices are increasingly subject to environmental requirements, irrigation and other sectors benefit from low electricity taxes, subsidies for the use of desalinated water and exemptions from water taxes and fees at the regional level. As in the case of other sectors, these measures often seek to address concerns about the economic sustainability of certain activities or respond to emergencies. For example, in March 2022, facing the most severe droughts in decades, the government implemented emergency measures to alleviate farming costs and short-term income, including tax reductions, reduced costs for desalinated water, and in some cases lower water fees (Gobierno de España, 2022[2]). While these ex post risk management measures are often triggered by the need to ensure the survival of certain activities, they are unlikely to contribute to incentivising a lower water use, alleviating the underlying causes of water scarcity, or promoting adaptation of the sector for the medium to long-term.

Beyond water policy, agriculture benefits from tax reductions for its use of fuel, lower VAT rates for inputs such as fertilisers, pesticides and plastics, and exemptions from numerous regional taxes on GHG emissions. OECD research has found that fuel tax rebates and low energy prices stimulate the use of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions and that some agricultural subsidies can lead to the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers (OECD, 2005[3]). Already in 2015, the OECD advised Spain to identify and remove fiscal measures and subsidies that are environmentally harmful and economically inefficient, including fuel subsidies for the agricultural sector, taking account of potential social impacts (OECD, 2015[4]). The problems of pollution from agriculture and over-abstraction of water might merit a revision of these subsidies and tax exemptions in light of the growing environmental pressures. In order to foster innovations that respond to the sustainability challenges and environmental externalities, incentives are needed for finding innovative solutions. The inclusion as a priority for the selection in the European Innovation Partnership “Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability” (EIP-AGRI) of projects that seek new sources of nutrients and improvements in the efficiency of their application is a welcome step in this regard.

Warmer temperatures in some regions may favour certain agricultural activities and even open new market opportunities for Spain. However, the growing water scarcity and advance of desertification brought about by climate change threaten the future of the whole sector. An increase in extreme weather events, including droughts, is reflected in the annual loss rate of the Spanish Agricultural Insurance System. Adaptation to this new reality must become a main guiding objective of Spanish policy. Agricultural insurance is an important tool, but it cannot be the only one: it must be complemented by other preventive and adaptation measures and actions by farmers.

In the context of high loss rates and taking into account that agricultural insurance subsidy levels had been reduced in the previous decade, the Spanish government has taken measures to strengthen the system. For example, in 2022, it modified the reinsurance scheme, with the public reinsurer consortium taking on a greater role in protecting the system through its stabilisation reserve. In addition, the government increased support for agricultural insurance by raising the base subsidy by 10 percentage points, the same amount by which it had been reduced in 2016.

While these measures help guarantee that the system remains operational and solvent, this may not be sufficient in the long term, as severe weather events become even more frequent and serious. Spain should take this into account in its climate risk management and resilience strategy and complement the insurance system by incentivising climate change adaptation with less water-demanding production and investment on preparedness to the new climate and risk environment.

Spain has recognised in its CSP the need to adapt the insurance system to guarantee its solvency and sustainability in light of the new reality. Recognising the need to make the necessary adjustments to ensure the effectiveness of the system is a good step, but more far-reaching actions may be necessary to maintain the solvency of the system and the sustainability of production, avoiding the emergence of adverse selection and moral hazard problems. The OECD has recommended that Spain develops a broad framework for disaster risk management in agriculture, defining the role of all government policies and farmers’ strategies (Antón and Kimura, 2011[5]). Beyond insurance, policy action should promote preparedness and adaptation by farmers, enhancing their role and responsibility in managing their risks and adapting to a changing climate.

As discussed, the two main nationally financed agricultural policies in Spain are irrigation and insurance. The EU Common Agricultural Policy is the most important source of funding to the sector. Spain is one of the top beneficiaries of CAP expenditures, even if they represent a lower share of gross added value than for the EU as a whole (European Parliament, 2022[6]). The CAP 2023-27 offers for the first time the opportunity to Spain – and all EU member states – to orientate CAP expenditure in the direction that better fits its national circumstances and environmental pressures. The strategic orientation, priorities and actions to be undertaken in 2023-27 have been spelled out in the new CAP Strategic Plan (CSP) which started implementation in January 2023.

An important feature of the new CSPs is that Pillar 1 measures that used to be fully designed at the EU level are now part of the national strategy. In the case of Spain, rural development measures under Pillar 2, which previously were presented separately in one national plan and 17 plans for each of the Autonomous Communities, have been consolidated into a single plan. The ACs remain responsible for implementing the specific measures according to their needs and priorities. The development of a single strategic plan required a substantial co-ordination effort between national and regional authorities. This new delivery model is an important step towards an agricultural policy that better responds to the national needs, but at the same time represents a co-ordination challenge that must balance the priorities and production structures at the regional level with the environmental, innovation and sector resilience goals at the national level. Ensuring an agile and continuous discussion among all relevant actors will be key to reach this balance.

Income objectives are a priority for the Spanish government, as expressed in the CSP. This includes direct payments as a safety net, redistribution of payments to medium and smaller farms and convergence of payments across regions. Ensuring a basic safety net from stable income support for farmers is a declared priority. Achieving a redistribution of these payments to small and medium-sized farms and reaching a convergence of direct payments among the 20 agricultural regions (different from the territorial delimitation of the ACs), are also important policy objectives. Focus is given to ensuring the continuity of farming by preserving farmers’ income as a means to prevent the abandonment of rural land and the lack of generational renewal. Direct and complementary payments take up the largest share of payments, with no redistribution of funds towards the rural development pillar.

While in general EU policies have made progress in moving towards less market distortions and higher income transfer efficiency, the CAP direct payments are not the most suitable instrument to provide a safety net for farm households and tend to create barriers to entry, including for young farmers and women. Spain has made efforts to improve the targeting of these payments, for example by cross-checking data of CAP payment recipients with tax and social security data to examine the importance of agriculture as an income source and the extent to which farmers perform other activities (MAPA, 2020[7]), and through the use of the available tools for capping and redistribution.

The main shortcoming of CAP direct payments as designed at the EU level is the gap between the ambitious goals being set for the sector and the implementation of results. An EU-wide discussion is needed on the targeting of CAP payments and the relative weight and resources given to income, environmental or other objectives (OECD, forthcoming[8]). Direct payments tend to be proportional to land, providing more support to larger farms, and adjustments to the payments’ provisions may not revert this regressivity of income support. Moreover, eligibility is based on income from agriculture only, hence not taking into account other economic activities that farmers or farm households may have. The OECD has noted that objectives related to low farm household incomes could be addressed through income and social policies that are better targeted (OECD, 2002[9]). Social safety nets can be an effective means for income support that ensures equal treatment between agricultural and non-agricultural households (OECD, 2021[10]). In any case, targeting income objectives requires measuring the full farm household income to estimate the prevalence of low income among farmers and design safety net policies addressing low-income concerns among farm households.

If income is a priority, data efforts for measuring farm household income should also be a priority. Continuing the efforts to cross-check income data started during the CSP preparation, including through strengthened collaboration between the public entities involved, is a valuable step that Spain could take in this direction. The European Union plans to convert the Farm Accountancy Data Network (FADN) into a Farm Sustainability Data Network (FSDN) may also include the collection of information related to non-agricultural income from farms.

Spain is one of 20 EU Member States that will dedicate more than 10% of their direct payment envelope to providing income support coupled to production. With 14% of the Pillar 1 budget, the share of coupled payments in Spain’s new CSP is higher than in the previous CAP period and close to the allowed ceiling. Coupled support is less efficient in transferring income to farmers (OECD, 2003[11]). Furthermore, the OECD has called for a transition towards less coupled payments to support a reduction of climate impacts and further strengthen the sustainability of production (OECD, 2022[12]).

The stated objective of these payments is to maintain types of farming that are vulnerable from a social and economic point of view, and to support their transition to more sustainable production models. Spain has made efforts to increasingly subject these payments to environmental conditionalities, for example by excluding individuals or legal entities that have been sanctioned for illegal water use or by requirements on sustainable inputs management and contracts. In addition, some coupled payments are targeted to crops that generate positive externalities (such as nut production in areas at risk of desertification due to low precipitation levels or steep slopes). While coupled payments are designed to create incentives to keep the activity, they might not create incentives for the needed transition. It might be worth considering whether this model is keeping farmers in activities that are no longer viable, affecting the entrance of young farmers, or even discouraging innovation.

In line with the general EU policy direction, Spain’s CSP represents an effort to move the focus toward agri-environmental objectives. The CSP includes strengthened conditionality requirements for direct payments – including a new national good agricultural and environmental condition (GAEC) on sustainable nutrition of agricultural soils aiming to fight water pollution and ammonia emissions – voluntary eco-schemes and several rural development measures (such as irrigation infrastructure investments and organic farming support). It will be important that the conditionality is properly enforced, and non-compliance sanctioned at the national and regional levels, in order to ensure that requirements and conditions (such as not granting support to those previously sanctioned for illegal water use) actually realize their potential impact.

The voluntary eco-schemes cover issues related to biodiversity, low-carbon agriculture, permanent pastures, and soil conservation. Payments are granted to farmers for implementing in a given plot of their farm one out of a “menu” of seven management practices. The payment applies to only one practice per plot of land. Not all practices from the menu are applicable in every type of farm. For farmers that are able to apply several practices on the same plot, no incentive is provided for going beyond the minimum of one practice. On the other hand, there are supplements for repeating certain practices on the same area in successive years. One of the considerations for this design is that, for a given budget, an additional payment for a second practice would require a reduction of the first payment, which would disincentivise uptake of the first practice. Another consideration is that agri-environmental measures under the second pillar could potentially pay for additional practices that complement the eco-schemes.

If taken up and implemented with the planned ambition, the eco-schemes could mark the start of a shift in the sector towards the application of farming practices that contribute to reverting trends such as the observed decline in Spain’s biodiversity and the increasing soil degradation. However, there is no evidence of the impact that these practices may have over the whole country. As farmers become more familiar with the practices, and their adoption increases, Spain could consider adjusting the incentives to encourage the application of more practices, gradually introducing additional or more ambitious measures, or even making them mandatory. Farmers must have the appropriate incentives to adopt and consistently apply these practices. Outreach efforts, training and farm advisory will be essential to change farmers’ mindset towards environmental sustainability, as will be an accurate follow-up and monitoring of compliance.

Precise and timely data are essential for strategic planning and decision making by farmers, industry and policy makers, and for implementing better policies. Together with the new CSP, Spain counts on the Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan (RTRP), financed by the Next Generation funds of the EU. Spain may embark in a significant public policy and investment agenda for the next years, which could help achieve a transformation of the agricultural sector and reach ambitious sustainability and innovation objectives. Significant funding from the EU and the national and regional budgets has been allocated for these plans: EUR 32.5 billion for the implementation of the CSP during the 2023-27 implementation period, and over EUR 1.8 billion for the reforms and investments of agro-food and fisheries, water management and irrigation modernisation within the RTRP up to the end of 2026. It is critical that a significant part of these funds focus on data collection and processing, including through digital technologies, and on inducing the development and adoption of innovation for sustainability.

Spain must step up its efforts to develop indicators and collect the necessary data to monitor and assess the effectiveness with which these policies are meeting their objectives. As part of this effort, policies should support farmers’ investment on information systems to track and monitor the environmental performance of their farms, and advisory services that contribute to that end. The new farm information system (SIEX), with the Digital Farm Notebook and the ECOGAN registry for livestock farms, represents a significant effort to collect information that may allow to track farm practices for emission control, estimate greenhouse gas and ammonia emissions, and monitor fertiliser use at the farm level. The Agroclimatic Information System for Irrigation (SIAR) also represents an innovation to allow for a precise estimation of the water needs of crops, through the collection of agroclimatic data and calculation algorithms. Good farm-level data may allow for better monitoring the evolution in priority areas at the regional and national level and make it easier to identify potential adjustments needed in policy measures. Co-ordination and communication between the authorities at the different levels is essential to ensure the implementation of the system.

Also essential is the creation of incentives for farmers to invest in data and digital information systems on farm. National and regional budgets must contemplate appropriate funding for the implementation of these investments on information systems, in line with the ambition of the changes sought on environmental performance. This has been considered for example in one of the sectoral interventions of the new CSP, which will support producers’ organisations of fruits and vegetables, with the requirement that at least 2% of the expenditure is earmarked for research and innovation.

The ex ante environmental assessment of legislation, public plans, programmes and projects is well-established in Spain, and it is widely used at the national and regional levels; one recent example is the ex ante assessment of the new CSP. Although ex post evaluation is important to assess whether laws are working as originally intended and, if not, to propose improvements, the use of this type of evaluations across OECD countries remains low. Spain is not an exception: for example, the authorities have not conducted a full ex post evaluation of the effectiveness of the irrigation modernisation policy, despite the long duration of the programmes and the magnitude of the public investments involved.

The 2015 OECD Environmental Policy Review of Spain recommended strengthening capacity for conducting ex ante and ex post economic analysis of environmental policies and regulations; establishing closer links between the administration and the research community in this regard; and systematically conducting regulatory impact assessment for major regulatory initiatives, among other aspects (OECD, 2015[4]). Spain should ensure that sufficient financial and human resources are allocated to the management, data collection, analysis of results, monitoring and evaluation of the new policies and regulations, including the CSP. The evaluation of the impact of the eco-schemes on the environmental performance of the farms and the sector, and of the irrigation modernisation policies is of particular importance. Spain is currently developing the Evaluation Plan of the CSP, as required by the EU regulation. The recent establishment of a collaboration agreement between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAPA) and the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) for developing analysis and indicators to monitor and evaluate the CSP is a key step in this regard. It will be essential to guarantee its functioning beyond the initially foreseen three years of duration and ensure that the experience and capacities generated from this collaboration benefit future policy processes.

Spain tends to favour a regulatory approach in its policies and has developed a large set of legal and regulatory instruments to respond to different challenges in the areas of agriculture and the environment. There is a complex set of rules in different environmental domains and at different administration levels. In this respect, the OECD has suggested that Spain develops an environmental code to consolidate the numerous acts that exist in this area (OECD, 2015[4]). There has been progress in this regard through the development of Electronic Water Codes that compile and publish online the state and regional regulations on water management.

This regulatory approach also prevails in science and innovation policy, where the OECD has recommended that Spain reduce the regulation of every aspect of the system. Instead, a progressive transition to a framework governed by general principles, codes of conduct, guidelines and good practices that are reviewable would help to effectively respond to the needs of the collaboration and knowledge transfer system's actors (OECD, 2021[13]).

Regulations are an important part of the policy toolkit available for countries to manage externalities and public goods connected with agriculture. A first rule of good policy design is having SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) objectives. According to the OECD Recommendation on Agile Regulatory Governance to Harness Innovation, governments can design regulations that encourage innovation through more flexible, iterative and adaptive regular assessments of whether regulation remains fit for purpose and delivers its policy objectives. The opportunities provided by digital technologies could be utilised to improve the quality of evidence (Martini, 2023[14]).

Spain has relatively high-performing science and research communities, as well as institutions that are well integrated in the single European Research Area. Its dynamic and competitive agro-food sector needs to be further exposed to the right environmental incentives to respond more assertively to the big challenge of adapting to dryer climate conditions and balance productivity and sustainability. The links between the different actors in the AKIS need to be strengthened, to foster the creation and flow of knowledge and the adoption of innovation that responds to these needs.

The Spanish AKIS is highly fragmented. It involves many actors of different sizes and characteristics at national and regional levels, and a decentralised governance. Autonomous Communities (ACs) lead regional AKIS systems, which include research and development (R&D), innovation, and knowledge transfer policies. The central and regional governments exercise competences in agricultural-relevant R&D and innovation policies within the EU framework.

A decentralised system allows for the development of strategies that respond better to the local needs and specificities. However, to be successful, it also requires co-ordination and joint planning to strengthen knowledge flows and to build critical mass. The co-ordination of the national AKIS has so far been weak, hindering collaboration between ACs, which is needed to face global problems. The CSP includes several references to the AKIS and a compromise of creating an AKIS co-ordination body, which is currently in development. However, there is no national strategy specifically defining common agricultural innovation priorities and each region sets up its own smart specialization strategy depending on its own production systems and priorities.

ACs are very heterogeneous in terms of resources and have not always committed enough funding to the AKIS. In several ACs, policy responsibilities linked to the development of the regional AKIS are dispersed among different institutions, which are often not able to co-operate effectively with each other, hampering co-ordination at the regional level. Spain’s eighteen public agricultural research centres are very diverse. There are differences in their size, with some large institutes that address a wide range of issues and smaller ones that focus on specific regional issues. The connection and co-ordination between them could be improved in the whole AKIS system. Some regional research centres have additional problems, such as increasingly ageing staff or the impossibility to hire new researchers due to budget constraints. In some cases, these centres lack the critical mass needed to be competitive and succeed in open calls for proposals at national and international levels. Existing channels to enhance co-operation between the research centres and the agro-food sector are weak, and the collaboration tends to be sporadic, temporary, and highly dependent on personal relationships.

Although Spain has achieved very good results in scientific production, this research often struggles to reach the productive sectors, and the transfer system tends to be linear, with little involvement of farmers: the research originates in the research, development and innovation (R&D&I) centres and then it is applied in the field. As in other sectors, collaboration between scientists and the business sector is affected by several limitations, such as the absence of effective intermediaries, lack of business demand, legal and administrative barriers, lack of skills or experience, and lack of financial or other incentives (OECD, 2021[13]). In addition, there is a weak connection with farmers and other actors of the AKIS, often small-sized stakeholders, which creates difficulties to reach them and respond to their needs. Other key challenges of the system include the low private investment in innovation, in particular by farms, due to their small size and the lack of incentives for investing to improve sustainability.

Spain has successfully implemented 481 operational groups at the national and regional level under the European Innovation Partnership “Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability” (EIP-AGRI), which brings together different public and private actors to promote agri-food innovation that solves specific problems. This makes Spain the second country, after Italy, at the top of the ranking of operational groups. EIP-Agri has brought together more than 2 000 different actors of the Spanish AKIS, including all kinds of entities from all Spanish regions, with SMEs and regional research centres standing out. However, at the European Union level there is a lack of appropriate measuring of the results of these partnerships.

In the new CSP, funding for EIP-Agri amounts to EUR 168 million, including national, regional and EU funds and representing only 2% of total Pillar 2 Rural Development funding. The CSP also includes measures for innovation co-operation groups different from EIP-Agri with an allocation of EUR 34 million, following the European Commission recommendation to focus more support on EIP-Agri and avoid duplication.

In Spain there are relatively few examples of collaboration in public-private partnerships apart from those under the CSP. However, there are some successful programmes by the Spanish State Research Agency that combine loans and subsidies to support public-private collaboration, and partnership agreements led by the MAPA. Horizon Europe could be a model of mission-oriented co-funding to enhance co-operation across the Spanish regions and their agricultural research and innovation institutes and actors, in particular considering that Spanish entities have been successful in being beneficiaries of Horizon 2020 funds.

Data and information about the functioning of the AKIS, including funding and knowledge flows among actors, is needed to fully assess, monitor and enhance the agricultural innovation system. This is a precondition for a successful policy design and for improving the co-ordination of the AKIS. However, there are several areas with a lack of systematic and periodic data at different levels. This includes information about expenditure, research, the advisory capacities of the regional agricultural research institutes, or their priorities and programmes. This information is important for co-ordination and for the identification of challenges and opportunities of the Spanish AKIS.

Overall investment in R&D&I as a percentage of GDP in Spain is much lower than the EU average, and the gap has widened since the economic crisis. Even if the private sector has become the main source of funding, it is also low compared to the EU average and relies on increasingly fewer firms. The Spanish government has set the goal to increase public investment on R&D&I to reach 1.25% of GDP by 2030, but closing the gap with the European Union will require increased private investment too. Despite this general context, government spending on R&D for the agro-food sector has been increasing in recent years, although it remains below the level observed before the 2008 financial crisis.

The Spanish system combines direct public grants for R&D&I projects, and tax incentives including tax deductions (up to 25%) for R&D&I in corporate tax, reductions in Social Security payments for research personnel, and reductions in income tax for revenues obtained through exploiting intangible assets (patents, utility models, etc.). However, in Spain, most agro-food companies are SMEs with low or no R&D&I activities, and do not benefit from those incentives. This may be due to a relatively high administrative burden and frequent changes of rules that difficult the access of companies to these support measures.

The level of education of most agricultural workers remains well below the EU average, with 40% being elementary workers ‒ compared to the EU average of 14% − and only 22% of farm managers having a formal training. There is also evidence of skills mismatches in the sector that are larger than in other countries. In the Spanish agriculture, forestry and fishing sector, there is a total qualification mismatch of 48%, with 26% of workers being overqualified and 22% of workers being underqualified. This, together with the ageing of farmers, can exert a negative impact on the dynamism and innovation capacity of the agricultural and food sector.

The training needs of the agricultural sector are evolving and require high entrepreneurship, digital, and environmental skills to facilitate the adoption of new technologies and the commitment to enhanced environmental sustainability. Improving the formal and informal links of agricultural education (including both the schools and universities and their students) with the rest of the AKIS actors will be vital.

Spanish advisory services have evolved from traditional public agricultural extension services towards private and commercial advisors, often linked to input providers. While these advisors provide an essential service, the advice they give to farmers risks being linked to their commercial interests. Independent private advisors are key to provide independent advice. They allow to address and support the provision of public goods that otherwise would not be provided due to market weaknesses or failures, without imposing the funding and provision costs on the public system.

There are significant differences in the approaches followed by the different Autonomous Communities (ACs). Currently, there are almost no public advisory services in Spain, except in Navarra and the Canary Islands. Given the importance of the CAP as the main agricultural policy, the work of agricultural extension officers often focusses on processing CAP payment applications, rather than on inducing innovation and sustainability. The joint participation in EIP-Agri operational groups represents an interesting example of interaction between advisors and researchers, but the interrelations between advisors and research centres need further strengthening. Including farmers in these partnerships is key to effectively respond to farmers’ needs while also inducing them to adopt more sustainable practices. Farmers’ involvement can be achieved in different ways, including through consultation or by their indirect participation through co-operatives, sectoral associations or professional agricultural organisations.

In the 2014-20 CAP period, Spain only marginally used the support measure to farm advisory services (M2) set within the framework of the Pillar 2 Rural Development Programmes. There is scope for more active policies in this area, which is critical to foster innovation. The government could contribute to finance the levelling up of advisory services across ACs, which nowadays have very different systems in place. Different approaches are possible. In the Netherlands, under the new CSP farmers receive vouchers to spend to access advice from independent private advisors whose knowledge and capacity on specific areas (such as the environment) is certified by a government system. In Ireland, farmers have a choice to engage with an advisor from the public, private or industry sector, while publicly funded, mixed funded, and privately funded services coexist. In Germany, advisory services are also offered by a variety of organisations from the public, private, and non-profit sectors, which are co-ordinated by some multi-level farmer-based organisations and private entrepreneurial associations, contributing to the maintenance of an overarching AKIS and its vertical connection with other actors at the state and local level.

In light of the above assessment, the following policy actions are recommended. The recommendations are structured towards three areas: 1) strengthen institutions; 2) boost innovation systems; and 3) tackle urgent environmental measures. There are eleven recommendations under these areas, each with several specific actions.

  • Develop an ambitious agricultural innovation strategy in which all policy levers converge to strengthen the agricultural knowledge innovation system and its capacity to respond to the most acute environmental pressures, in particular water management. This strategy should encompass agricultural policies under the CSP; national agricultural policies on insurance and irrigation; agri-environmental policies and regulations; water policies and institutions; agro-food research and innovation support; and rural digital infrastructure and education policies. The EU recovery funds, and the relevant elements of the Spanish Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan (RTRP), provide an opportunity to cover funding gaps to foster innovation and transformation. Building on existing co-ordination mechanisms, the strategy should strengthen the respective interlinkages with other Ministries that lead on policy areas with a direct impact on agricultural sustainability and innovation. The government should lead the implementation of the agricultural innovation strategy and the identified set of priorities.

  • As part of the broader agricultural innovation strategy, define a specific set of priorities and missions for innovation in the agricultural sector at the national level, making sure that the most acute environmental pressures are well identified, in particular water stress. These priorities should guide subsequent policy decisions and R&D&I efforts and help improve the performance of the AKIS and its responsiveness to identified sector priorities. The government has a role in guiding strategic priorities and raising awareness and facilitating a change in mindsets towards a vision of productivity and sustainability as essential parts of the sector’s competitiveness.

  • Create an enabling environment that prioritizes tackling the environmental pressures and accelerating the transition to a more sustainable system, while keeping productivity growth. The government should invest in long-term policies to create awareness to allow farmers to assessment their performance, changing the mindset, and shaping the priorities of a more sustainable future in the farm and in the sector.

  • In coherence with the government’s declared income priority, invest resources on the measurement of farm household income to estimate the prevalence of low income among Spanish farmers and help the design and targeting of income support to those suffering from low income. Investigate the potential to design safety net policies – possibly as part of broader social programmes – that target farming households, instead of counting on less targeted decoupled CAP payments.

  • In light of the growing environmental pressures, consider reforming input subsidies and tax advantages on electricity, fuel and other variable inputs that currently benefit the agricultural sector and particularly irrigated agriculture. Transform these tax advantages into tax incentives for on-farm investment on innovation.

  • Undertake an ex post assessment of coupled payments, building on previous assessments made in the CSP process, to evaluate their impact on income, environmental pressures, and the adoption of changes and innovations. In future revisions of the CSP, consider reducing the share of coupled payments, given their potential distortive and environmental effects.

  • Enforce and monitor the mandatory cross-compliance of the CAP and the implementation of the voluntary eco-schemes to ensure that farmers comply and contribute to the sector’s shift to more sustainable production. Beyond the current CAP requirements, commission an independent ex post impact assessment of the eco schemes and the extent to which they add environmental value and reach their objectives. In order to enable this assessment, make sure that there are well-defined environmental objectives and that the appropriate methodology and data collection is designed from the beginning of their implementation.

  • Simplify and create a more stable administrative and regulatory environment, striking the right balance between accountability and a reasonable administrative burden. Consider steps to simplify or consolidate the numerous laws and regulations that exist for different environmental areas, and to improve transparency, following the example of the water management domain with the publication of the Electronic Water Codes.

  • Reduce the administrative burden and the delays in access to support policies and to funding for R&D. Simplify the application process for national calls for proposals of R&D&I projects, such as those funded by the Spanish State Research Agency (AEI), the Centre for the Development of Industrial Technology (CDTI), or the regional governments, and reduce the time for their resolution. Simplify the administrative requirements in the provision of public support, in particular fiscal incentives for innovation. Facilitate as much as possible the management of innovation measures such as the Operational Groups, avoiding bureaucratic barriers. Simplified requirements should be designed for farmers or small and medium-sized agro-food firms that currently have difficulties to benefit from these provisions.

  • Continue embracing digital technologies in the government, for the design, monitoring, implementation and assessment of policies. Facilitate full interconnectivity among digital tools and information for different policies and include the possibility of using a share of public support for digital investment by the beneficiaries. Use satellite and other digital technologies for policy monitoring.

  • Define ex ante quantifiable policy objectives and strategies to measure them and invest in monitoring. Establish indicators and data collection mechanisms to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the CSP and other agricultural, agri-environmental and innovation policies at the national and regional levels. Ensure that sufficient human and financial resources go to the monitoring and evaluation of these policies and build upon the recent MAPA-CSIC agreement to monitor the CSP. This will help determine if policies are meeting their objectives, provide a basis for adjustments if needed, and generate knowledge for future policy design.

  • Ensure that sufficient funds go to the new farm information system SIEX with well-identified earmarked budget lines. Important investments from RTRP funds have been made for the establishment of this system for data collection, follow-up and benchmarking. Continued funding will be essential to guarantee that it remains operative in the longer term and ensure a comprehensive and timely implementation to monitor farmers and assess policy performance.

  • Explore innovative avenues to generate and collect data for evaluating and monitoring the performance of the regional and national innovation policies, to take best advantage of the synergies and avoid duplication in innovation efforts. The use and development of open data should be prioritised in the data strategy.

  • Improve co-ordination and knowledge flows between the national and regional levels to enhance the implementation of the agricultural innovation strategy. Encourage the investment in AKIS by the ACs, in particular those with weaker innovation structures. Establish a governance structure at the national level, including agencies from the ACs, for improved co-ordination of the AKIS between the national and regional governments. Improve co-operation and knowledge flows at all levels, avoid the duplication of efforts, create critical mass to tackle shared problems, and share best practices.

  • Promote co-operation among the ACs, including their regional agro-food research centres. Ensure cross-region knowledge gains and enough critical mass to get the maximum advantage of the regional AKIS diversity. Accelerate the creation of the announced “AKIS Co-ordination Body” initiative and ensure funding to incentivise joint projects and partnerships across regions. EU tools such as Horizon Europe could be an example to design similar national incentives to work across ACs.

  • Improve the interrelations among institutions and the competitiveness of research groups by creating joint research centres with other regional centres, the CSIC, and universities, through the collaboration of public and/or private entities.

  • Use the new AKIS co-ordination body to establish a mutual evaluation and monitoring system to follow up the measures implemented by the regions. Map the set of actors, capacities, projects and available resources, and the existing interrelations and incentives to collaborate. Design a process and a methodology of mutual reporting and evaluation of AKIS systems and initiatives in the different ACs. A better co-ordination of the AKIS also implies improving the communication channels and generating and sharing relevant information.

  • Foster the involvement and active participation of the private sector through public-private multi-stakeholder partnerships, involving public institutions at different levels. Maintain and encourage participation in the EIP-AGRI operational groups and provide incentives to induce new types of public-private partnerships to address environmental problems using all the policy space allowed by the CAP and possibly national funding. Ensure that innovation results reach more farmers, promoting a higher involvement of farmers in R&D&I projects to ensure that their needs are being considered. Develop a mission-oriented co-funding to enhance co-operation across the Spanish regions and their agricultural research and innovation institutes and actors, taking successful EU tools as models.

  • Encourage the development of new co-operation mechanisms based in co-creation processes. This could be fostered through, for example, living labs, promotion of entrepreneurship, collaborative platforms, formal and informal networks for knowledge transfer, public procurement of innovation, and promotion of peer-to-peer learning. Based on the experience of operational groups under the EIP-AGRI, regional exchange groups could be created to profit from sharing and exchanging the knowledge generated, search for shared concerns, and work together to find practical solutions.

  • Increase investment in R&D&I in the national and the regional AKIS. Increase funding for the implementation of the elements of the CSP Rural Development plan linked to the AKIS. Consider transferring financial resources from CAP Pillar 1 to strengthen the innovation-related components of the programmes in Pillar 2. Promote the establishment of programmes to stimulate demand for innovation services among agro-food companies (especially SMEs).

  • Assess and monitor the participation of farms and agro-food firms in R&D&I funding and innovation tax incentive programmes and use the information to induce innovation to address environmental sustainability needs. For instance, explore the possibility of strengthening the current use in some ACs of public procurement processes to boost private R&D&I by increasing demand of problem-solving technologies. Monitor and assess the use of the tax advantages by the agro-food sector, including farmers, and identify barriers that reduce the take up in the sector.

  • Promote the ex post evaluation of R&D grants and loans and take these evaluations into account for the renewal of grants. This includes evaluating the performance and results of the operational groups, creating a methodology to track their activities and performance in order to identify the main drivers of success.

  • Adapt support policies and financing to target SMEs and help them become more innovative and sustainable. In particular, improve outreach and simplify administrative requirements for those seeking to create start-ups. Strengthen the capacity of technology centres to effectively conduct R&D through partnerships between firms – especially SMEs – and research institutes.

  • Speed up the deployment of connectivity and 5G in the agro-food sector and rural areas. Make digital infrastructure a key catalyser to attract and facilitate innovation in agro-food, as it is in other sectors. Improve and facilitate the access of SMEs and agricultural holdings to digital technologies, considering barriers and providing elements to overcome them. Use these facilities to encourage the development of services in rural areas and the connection between farms and other actors in the food chain and in the local service economy. Fully roll out the National Plan for Digitalisation of Public Administration.

  • Encourage the co-ordination between the actions of the Digital Innovation Hubs, including the hub to be created by the MAPA and those that already exist in the regions.

  • Implement a broad and ambitious strategy to improve the quality and quantity of agricultural advisory services, considering the specificities of the different regions and the diversity of the current models. Strengthen support policies and regional structures and attract new professional profiles better suited to farmers’ needs and environmental performance. Encourage independent private advisors that provide impartial advice focused on entrepreneurial solutions to environmental constraints.

  • Strengthen the announced platform for agro-food advisors by offering and promoting the use of online advisory services and of powerful digital technologies. Use the platform to boost knowledge transfer and interactions among AKIS stakeholders. Consider the implementation of successful measures to improve independent advisory services and their use by farmers, such as the voucher system of the Netherlands.

  • Improve the education and training levels of independent advisors, in particular to enhance sustainable innovation and adoption. Encourage them to obtain the Certificate for European Consultants in Rural Areas (CECRA). Use the AKIS co-ordination body to share experiences on how ACs invest in their advisory services and encourage mutual learning between different institutional arrangements. In particular, strengthen knowledge and awareness of environmental pressures and sustainability practices: specific advisory services could be proposed to farmers about the practices required by the eco-schemes. Policies could also be targeted to farmers of different ages, with low training level, or to small farms. More tailored measures could be needed for groups of farmers that lack the necessary skills to take advantage of advisory services and digital technologies.

  • Quantify and understand the extent of the illegal extraction problem.

  • Take firm action to reduce illegal water extractions. Consider extending the permit requirement to all small water abstractions, regardless of the quantitative status of the water body, for an exhaustive control of extractions. Create awareness among farmers about the real risk of the aquifers from which they extract irrigation water. Develop guidelines or a policy mandate to ensure an agile enforcement (i.e. closing of illegal wells) at the national and regional level.

  • Meter all water used for irrigation. Enforce compulsory metering and tracking of water use by irrigators, using a hotspot approach to prioritise water bodies at risk. Commission an independent evaluation to examine the balance of power of the communities of irrigators in the decision making of river basin authorities. Review their level of influence in RBA decisions and make sure that other actors (such as the civil society or environmental organisations) are heard, to reach the right balance between agricultural users’ priorities, other water users and environmental concerns.

  • Take advantage of the foreseen reform of the Water Law to promote a comprehensive approach that considers the full water cycle at the basin level and addresses the full extent of the water problems. Consider this opportunity to fully align with the OECD Council recommendations.

  • Improve the transparency on water policies and facilitate their assessment by establishing a repository of data related to water management and water pricing for all river basin districts.

  • Develop additional instruments to encourage sector adaptation and preparedness, which complement the agricultural insurance system to better manage climate risks through a holistic approach. This could encompass reforming or reorienting support that could potentially exacerbate climate change, applying appropriate mitigation incentives, and investing in innovation and knowledge transfer. It should take account of wider implications for food systems, exploit synergies with other social and environmental objectives and be balanced in each context with potential adverse impacts.

  • Use the strengthened advisory services to create awareness among farms about the main risks of climate change in their farms and their specific needs of adaptation.

  • Commission an in-depth assessment of the successive irrigation modernisation plans. In particular, assess their impact on total irrigated area and total water consumption, and identify the potential loopholes in the design of the irrigation plans that may reduce their effectiveness in promoting long-term adaptation strategies.

  • Strengthen the focus of irrigation plans on supporting investments that reduce water consumption beyond just increasing efficiency. Given the increasing water stress accentuated by climate change, modernisation of irrigation systems needs to translate into reductions in water consumption and improvements in water availability. Improve controls to ensure that efficiency improvements are reflected in real savings in the water consumed.

  • Strengthen the climate risk management and resilience strategy, complementing ex post compensation from insurance with measures for incentivising climate change adaptation with less water-intensive productions and investment on preparedness to the new climate and risk environment.

The future of food and farming in Spain requires balancing growing competitiveness with using less inputs and natural resources. Spain has developed a highly productive and competitive agro-food sector; at the same time, the sector’s growth has not been exempted from environmental sustainability concerns. The country is taking steps to mitigate the environmental impacts of farming activities and incorporate innovation as a catalyst of change, including through its CAP Strategic Plan. Reaping the benefits of these policy efforts and promoting a transformation towards a sustainable path of agricultural productivity growth requires determined action: an enabling policy environment, further targeting policies to their income and environmental objectives, and using data and analysis to evaluate their impact and effectiveness. Spain must decisively address water stress and generate the incentives necessary to foster innovation for sustainability. For this, it must take full advantage of the potential and the diversity of its agricultural knowledge and innovation system (AKIS) improving its co-ordination. An ambitious and comprehensive innovation strategy is needed to make knowledge the agent of change for the future.


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