With mouth-watering foods, mountain farms in Europe seek climate readiness

Tackling threats to water supply in European highlands is crucial for producers of premium foods and drinks ranging from Spanish ham to Scotch whisky.


Marian Navas is at the sharp end of a major European challenge: ensuring that small-scale farmers can cope with the impact of climate change.

For Navas, a Spanish native who makes prized Iberian ham, and other traditional agricultural producers in Europe’s mountain regions, the test boils down to water. Can they count on having enough of it as global warming triggers more frequent droughts?

High stakes

The answer to this question may determine whether mountain areas, which cover more than a third of Europe’s land surface, remain viable contributors to EU economic, social and cultural life. In the case of Navas and numerous others, family history is also on the line.

‘Pig farming is a business that has been the livelihood of many families, including my own, for decades,’ she said. ‘Any business that is undertaken comes with challenges and, for those directly linked to nature, climate change is an additional one.’

The threat to supplies of water needed by businesses in mountain zones from Spain to Scotland is a prime focus of the EU-funded MOVING project. The four-year initiative, which runs through August 2024, is assessing the vulnerabilities of highland agriculture and mapping whole supply chains for insights to inform new policies and give long-term answers.

‘After two years, it is very clear that one of the most important threats is from climate change,’ said Professor Mar Delgado, who coordinates MOVING from the University of Cordoba in Spain. ‘Higher temperatures and more droughts mean less snow and less water. People are worried.’

But people like Navas also appear determined to tackle the challenges being addressed by MOVING.

Also on the project’s radar is the production of foods including cheese such as Portugal’s Serra da Estrela, Italy’s Caciocavallo from the Alto Molise region and Switzerland’s Tête de Moine; lamb from France’s Val de Drôme area as well as the Austrian and Serbian Alps; carob powder – used in bread – from the Greek island of Crete; chestnut flour from the French isle of Corsica and northern Italy; and drinks like Alto Douro wine from Portugal and Scotch malt whisky.

Ensuring that such activities persist would respond to growing consumer calls for less intensive agriculture and would reinforce Europe’s economic, social and cultural richness.

In contrast to factory farming, this type of ancestral mountain agriculture is more respectful of nature and even embraces it. Indeed, such producers form an integral part of the European landscape.

Acorn-fed pigs

Iberian ham, or Jamón ibérico, is a prime example of the economic and environmental issues at stake. Special production features give the ham a distinctive nuttiness, sweetness and tenderness, a protected designation of origin (PDO) label and a premium price.

Spain has four protected designations of origin for Iberian ham, which comes from southern and western areas of the country. The PDO system involves regulations to guarantee the meat’s origin, production methods and particular characteristics.

MOVING covers the smallest PDO, Los Pedroches, whose ham is produced from black pigs that feed on acorns, insects and grass in pastures in the Sierra Morena mountain range of southern Spain.

The combination of diet and roaming leads to a large amount of fat in the meat. A long curing process then allows development of the qualities that make the ham a delicacy.

Yet the water requirements for growing acorns and breeding pigs are putting an increasing strain on the sector, particularly traditional producers, according to Juan Luis Ortiz, secretary general of the Los Pedroches PDO.

‘Water is now one of the great limitations of our pastures, specifically for the production of acorns,’ said Ortiz. ‘Besides, pigs drink about 10 litres of water a day. The main challenge is the collection of water and its storage and, secondly, the optimisation of its use to eliminate losses.’

Some pig farmers in Spain are placing canopies over ponds from which the animals drink to prevent evaporation – an increasingly widespread technique in European hillside agriculture, according to Delgado.

‘Small ponds covered with plastics to avoid water loss are also becoming common in other places,’ she said.

Winemaker’s soil strategy

For Luca Pedron, agronomy head at sparkling wine producer Ferrari in Italy’s northern region of Trento, water scarcity has been a growing concern since a dry summer in 2003 hampered grape production.

The alert, he said, was reinforced in 2022 when a very dry year along with unusually high temperatures hurt the quantity and quality of grapes. 

‘What we harvested was low in sugar content and poor in terms of acidity – exactly what we need to avoid to obtain a good quality wine,’ Pedron said. ‘What worries us nowadays is the reduced rainfall and snowfall with, at the same time, long periods of high temperatures.’

He said one response from wine producers is to increase the organic matter in soil so it becomes more fertile and, as a result, can store more water.

Covering the soil, deepening root penetration and using lighter machinery wherever possible are part of the overall answer, according to Pedron.

‘It is a strategy composed of several actions, all aiming at better soil fertility and more developed root systems,’ he said.

Mountain chains

MOVING has evaluated the production systems and vulnerabilities in each of the 23 regions covered by the project. With 15 months still to run, it plans to deliver a roadmap of policies needed to improve the resilience and sustainability of European mountain areas.

To stick to the example of Iberian ham, this exercise will mean assessing the steps starting with pig breeding and continuing through processing, marketing, distribution and consumption in, say, a specialised delicatessen in Berlin, Paris or New York.

‘We need consumers ready to pay the high value of this product so the caring of the pastures, the pigs and the mountain areas can be made sustainable,’ Delgado said. ‘If you want these territories to be alive, you need people working there.’

Spain has around 4 000 farms that raise Iberian pigs, which number fewer than 400 000 – a fraction of the country’s total pig population of around 34 million. The Iberian-ham business is oriented to markets abroad.

Exports last year were worth more than €500 million, according to Spanish trade agency ICEX. Around three-quarters of these shipments were to other European countries including France, Germany, Italy and Portugal, while top overseas consumers included the US, Mexico and China.

Producer pride

Mountain regions provide plenty of public goods including water, clean air and scenery that could justify government aid for highland farming, according to Delgado.

Nonetheless, she says the other underlying strength of these areas is the local and skilled workforce committed to protecting the land and keen to show that this type of agriculture can increasingly influence consumer demand.

‘They want to have a job, an income and a livelihood,’ said Delgado.

Navas is proof of the point, expressing a determination to thrive in small-scale pig farming with the help of various possible practical improvements. These include water collection and storage systems to take advantage of rainfall throughout the year and training of farm workers to ensure proper pruning of groves and soil conditions for trees.

She said that, apart from the ultimate results that will emerge, MOVING has already been beneficial by bringing together a variety of professionals from across Europe who have enriched her thinking about the way ahead.

‘This project is having a very positive impact on my perspective of the future in this sector,’ Navas said.

Research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.