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30 noviembre 2023

Joaquín Olona: “The most important thing we have are farmers”

The Minister of Agriculture, Livestock and Environment of the Government of Aragon reflects in an interview on the situation of the countryside, its challenges and the future that awaits it. He also highlights the weight of the agri-food sector in the development of the Aragonese economy, especially in exports.

Joaquín Olona (Zaragoza, 1959) has headed the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Environment of the Government of Aragon since 2019. In the previous legislature he was in charge of Rural Development and Sustainability, another denomination with which he also covered the competences related to the Aragonese countryside.

In short, he adds almost 8 years as counselor of the portfolio linked to one of the most important sectors for the economy of the Community, as he makes clear in an interview with Go Aragon in which he also highlights the role of professionals in the field: “The most important thing we have are farmers,” he stresses.

We are almost at the end of the legislature, are you satisfied with the work of these four years?

It is a question that can be misleading. On the one hand, I am not satisfied because there are many things that I would have liked to achieve and have not achieved, starting with an in-depth reform of the CAP and, on the other hand, that the sector would have received much more aid and economic impulses. From that point of view, I am not satisfied because the ambition and the needs are there.

On the other hand, from the point of view of the management of this Government as a whole, I believe that in this and the last legislature we have been ambitious and we have faced important challenges. From the point of view of the Government, in terms of ambition and facing challenges, in this sense I am very satisfied.

After two consecutive legislatures, you have been in charge of the area for almost eight years. With this track record, what is your assessment of the Aragonese countryside?

That it is a very professional sector, very technified, with a great capacity and that, perhaps, what is not in line is the agricultural policy, the CAP, which does not end up betting for that professionalism, for that technological capacity that exists and, all this, in the scope of the family model, which is what we are defending from the Government of Aragon.

Regarding this family model, what initiatives are there to protect and promote it, in what line are they going to go when they will be ready?

We have the law for the protection of family farming, which has been before the Parliament for a year. Everything indicates that it is going to come out, it has to be imminent because there is very little time left in the legislature. I am sure that it will be passed. I would emphasize that it is the main challenge we have had as a Government, that bet for the family model and the achievement as soon as this law is definitively approved by the Courts. In short, it is not only a question of supporting agriculture, agriculture in the abstract perhaps does not need support, what does need support is the family model, that particular type of agriculture which is fundamental, among many other things, for the maintenance of the territory.

 

For example, to fix the population?

Indeed, to fix the population, so that the villages can continue to be villages as we know them, because the economic and social weight of agriculture is so important that, from my point of view, if this model is finally replaced by others that are already corporate, perhaps the food system will not suffer so much, but the territorial model will be seriously affected.

And, in livestock farming, in slurry management, is Aragon on the right track?

The first objective, although it may seem obvious, is for the sector itself to be aware that this is its main challenge and its Achilles heel. We must start by convincing ourselves that this is the most pressing and, from a strategic point of view, the most decisive problem. I say this because I am convinced that, given the potential of the pig sector, it is only when it really sets its mind to it that it will start to find solutions. It is a sector that has already provided solutions to many other aspects in the productive and sanitary fields… African swine fever was eradicated from Spain, which was the Achilles heel for many years.

The first thing you have to do to solve a problem is to be absolutely aware that it exists and that you want to solve it. From there, what are we trying to do from the Government? Well, to remove the regulatory and institutional barriers that exist for the use of slurry and the substitution, in short, of mineral fertilizers for those of organic origin, among them, slurry.

What am I talking about? It seems to me a contradiction that the community directive on nitrates limits nitrogen from slurry, from manure, and does not limit nitrogen from mineral fertilizers. This does not make any sense from the agronomic point of view, it obeys to other reasons that can be imagined and this is not something that an autonomous community can do, but I put it as the maximum expression of removing regulatory and institutional barriers, so that this can be developed with the speed and, above all, with the intensity that we need.

I insist, it is the maximum expression of regulatory limitation; there are others in which we already have an impact and, in fact, a decree of the Government of Aragon on slurry was already approved in 2018 that addresses what we can address from the Community. And, as with the latest initiatives that have been driving, with the recent congress that was held, Renowagro, in short, encourage both the sector and the research and development system to really bet on the fertilizer use of slurry.

There are two fundamental ideas. One, the pig sector has to be convinced and bet on the solution to the problem and not take the wrong path. The solution to the problem has to come from the hand of the fertilizer use and stop falling into the continuous mistake that has been made in the last 30 years of considering the slurry as an energy resource, which it is not.

Speaking of pigs, can the solutions that China is applying to its problems with the plague affect Aragon and the sector?

I do not think so. For years, and some people have been saying it, there has been talk of a pig bubble. I have never seen any bubble, what we have is a sector that is very advanced, I would say that it is, together with wine, the sector that has a greater commercial advance, with a bigger and better commercial structure, and that has allowed it to be all over the world. Our pork is, and this is not a minor detail, in the markets of the most advanced countries. It is not only China, the sector is exporting to the United States and all over the world, to the five continents and to the most developed countries. Therefore, it is by no means a sector that is captive to a specific, particular market, such as China, or to any other.

In fact, in recent years China has been recovering its production, which had collapsed for sanitary reasons, and the sector is still there. It is sufficiently diversified commercially so that there is no decisive dependence on China. Having said all this, if China catches a cold, the world catches a cold. For better or for worse, the globalized world, the global markets, have a clear and evident dependence on China, but not the pork sector, our entire economy.

Speaking of the exterior, how is the Aragonese countryside contributing to the internationalization of Aragon?

Very much so. I believe that the agri-food sector as a whole, agriculture, livestock and agribusiness, has a great weight in the good development of the economy. The agri-food system is contributing in a very remarkable way to the economic growth and to the good evolution of the variables of the economy of Aragon as a whole. And, in particular, to exports. We do not only export pork; we export wine, we export alfalfa, a product that 50 years ago would have been unthinkable due to its physical characteristics. Therefore, we have a very internationalized sector with a great contribution to exports as a whole.

Also with ‘gourmet’ products such as the black truffle, right?

Yes, the truffle is a more symbolic product. There are a number of products and perhaps the main one or the first one that should be put is the black truffle as a business card. It is not because of volume, it is not because it has a decisive impact on export figures as pork, for example, or wine, but it is a magnificent business card that should help us a lot more to open new markets and doors in the agri-food world. And, in this case, especially in the international gastronomic world, where Spain is a reference and a world power. We must have a star product, such as the black truffle, in which Aragon is the main producer in the world, particularly Teruel, the area of Sarrión. All this is a great challenge, it has to be internationalized and serve as a flagship for all the other products to follow, to open the way.

The truffle is in the process of obtaining its own Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), products such as wines and ham already have their designations of origin… how important are these seals when it comes to internationalization?

In this world of globalized markets, where everything tends to unify and it is so difficult to compete, I believe that in the game of internationalization and globalization, having differentiated products is perhaps one of the keys or one of the most effective strategies to be able to compete. We must compete on price, but not only on price; having an element of recognized differentiated quality is the way to differentiate, in short, our products from the multitude of others with which we must compete in the world.

The energy crisis is also affecting the agri-food sector. How can the regional government help producers?

Like many other things, from an autonomous community there is little that can be done in the face of a problem such as the increase in energy prices; we do not have our own tools. The first thing to do is to collaborate with the general administration to transfer the aids and support that, in fact, have been established and, specifically, in the case of the agricultural sector. Beyond that, from my point of view, the purpose of this energy crisis is to highlight the importance and the need to deepen and bet on the technological development of the sector. It is necessary to optimize and improve efficiency in all agricultural areas where energy is consumed, which are very many, and this, regardless of the measures of a conjunctural nature, implies a real commitment to technological development; in particular, the commitment to renewables, for example.

One of the areas where it is having a more pernicious and harsh effect is, apart from fuel, which is of a general nature, in irrigation. In many irrigation systems, water saving in recent decades has led to the use of pressure systems that require energy. What we are betting on is for irrigation communities to replace conventional energy systems with renewable ones.

In Environment, the budget has grown by 82% compared to 2015. Does this increase respond to the challenges posed by climate change?

In part, yes, because, in the end, the response to climate change from the point of view of European policies is the strategy adopted by the European institutions. In practical and immediate terms, it is a consequence, above all, of the implementation of European funds, of the MRRFs. These funds have a clear strategic orientation to address issues related to climate change and that is the most immediate and concrete reason.

In short, and beyond the crises and challenges it faces, does the Aragonese countryside have a future?

It has a great future because we have competitive factors, although it is sometimes insisted, for example, that with climate change there will be no water. Well, climate change is going to have a much more irregular water regime. If we complete, as we are doing, our hydraulic regulation capacities, we have water, territory, soil, but, above all, the most important thing we have are farmers. I insist, we have a very powerful agricultural structure based on a family model which, if we give it the support it requires and deserves, has a splendid future, as long as it continues hand in hand with the industrialization process that is taking place.

I believe that the most determining factor is, because it is obvious that we have an agro-industry that is going like a meteor, an agro-industry in which there are very important projects under development and this is fundamental for the future. For me, there are two keys, one is the family model; but this model needs two things, public support and to be linked to a powerful agro-industry, internationalized, with an economic dimension, with a business commitment and, above all, with clear commitments to marketing and commercial development. This requires both internationalization. It is essential that the agro-industry continues to pull by configuring relevant projects and, behind it, the raw materials are guaranteed by our production system.

You mentioned the importance of innovation in the sector, centers such as CITA or CIHEAM, what role do they play?

They play a fundamental role. To put a specific case that has a strategic nature, in 2016 we launched what we call cooperation projects. The idea was for farmers and ranchers themselves, individually or, preferably, through groups and associations, to access innovation and development projects. This was new, it was launched and, of course, I would describe it as a success, it has had an extraordinary response and the role played by CITA has been absolutely decisive. It would have been difficult to promote, let alone succeed, a line like this, which emphasizes that R&D projects should be promoted and developed by the sector itself, without the support, support and intervention of CITA.

Then, I believe that there are some examples that I think are very remarkable and that should also help us to see where it is interesting to go and where we should bet on. To give another example, the best modern almond tree varieties used today in Spain and in the rest of the world, although it may seem incredible to us, have come from CITA. And that could be done because there were researchers who bet on solving real problems. They observed that the almond tree succumbed to frost and decided to tackle the problem by delaying the flowering dates. This shows that when someone focuses on a problem, sooner or later it will be solved. We have to bet on big problems, on real problems of the sector that are strategic, that their solution means great advances and I believe that this is a model to take into account, not to say to follow.

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