Spain Worries over 'Lifeless Land' amid Creeping Desertification

The ruins of the Church of Mediano, normally submerged in the waters of the Mediano reservoir, are now visible due to the ongoing drought. ANDER GILLENEA / AFP
The ruins of the Church of Mediano, normally submerged in the waters of the Mediano reservoir, are now visible due to the ongoing drought. ANDER GILLENEA / AFP
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Spain Worries over 'Lifeless Land' amid Creeping Desertification

The ruins of the Church of Mediano, normally submerged in the waters of the Mediano reservoir, are now visible due to the ongoing drought. ANDER GILLENEA / AFP
The ruins of the Church of Mediano, normally submerged in the waters of the Mediano reservoir, are now visible due to the ongoing drought. ANDER GILLENEA / AFP

Ongoing droughts and an over-exploitation of land for both agriculture and industry have stoked fears in Spain over the creeping spread of "sterile soil" which could devastate Europe's kitchen garden.

"There used to be a holm oak forest here.. but now the land is barren," says Gabriel del Barrio, pointing to a hill where only stunted shrubs remain.

Wearing dusty trainers and with a canvas hat on his head, this specialist in desertification has been worriedly monitoring the daily degradation of the landscape in Almeria, in the southern Andalusia region, said AFP.

"Spain is not going to be a desert with dunes like in the Sahara, that's morphologically impossible," explains del Barrio, a researcher at EEZA, the experimental center for research into arid zones.

But desertification, which is characterized by a severe "degradation of the soil" causing it to lose its productive capacity, "is worrying", he says.

In the dock are the usual suspects: global warming, which is driving rising temperatures leading to water evaporation that causes more wildfires, but also human activity, which is the biggest culprit, notably due to intensive farming.

Despite its very dry climate, Almeria has transformed itself into Europe's vegetable garden through its 40,000 hectares of greenhouses -- its "Sea of Plastic" -- which produce thousands of tons of tomatoes, peppers, courgettes and cucumbers all year round.

But these vast crop-producing areas are exacerbating the problem by using groundwater and "depleting the aquifers," says del Barrio.

'Complicated position'
Although the situation is extreme, it's not only happening in Almeria.

According to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, 75 percent of Spain's land is battling climatic conditions that could lead to desertification, making it the European nation most threatened by the problem.

"This puts us in a complicated position in which the combination of extreme temperatures, droughts and other factors aggravate the risk of erosion and the loss of soil quality," Spain's Ecology Minister Teresa Ribera warned in June.

According to the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), to which EEZA reports, soil degradation has tripled over the last 10 years, creating a problem which is "irreversible on a human scale".

And that means soils which are unable to retain water or organic matter, that cannot support crops or nourish livestock -- which is a matter of huge concern in a country where agriculture accounts for annual exports of some 60 billion euros ($66 billion).

"Soil erosion is now the main problem for most farmers in Spain," said UPA, which represents small farmers and stockbreeders, warning the situation was "serious" and could have a significant "economic cost".

Seven years for soil regeneration
In Andalusia, the situation has prompted some to roll up their sleeves and get down to work.

"We have to act on our own wherever possible... and not give in to fate," says Juan Antonio Merlos, 40, who owns a 100-hectare almond farm in the hills above Velez-Blanco.

Together with a handful of farmers from an association called AlVelAl, Merlos has introduced new "regenerative" practices since taking over his parents' farm three years ago, which has now been certified as organic, in a bid to "halt the soil erosion" in the region.

These farmers now use manure instead of chemical fertilizers, don't use pesticides "which kill insects," limit use of ploughing "which damages the soil" and use plant matter to cover the soil in order to conserve moisture on the rare occasions when it rains.

"This is long-term work" using techniques that have been around for years, says Merlos as he examines a few barley stalks planted under his almond trees.

But that doesn't stop him from being optimistic.

"In theory, you need seven years to see results from regenerative agriculture. But I have already started to notice the difference in the soil and the insects," he told AFP.

As well as urging farmers to adopt new practices, environmental associations are pushing for new ways of farming, by reducing irrigated areas and using crops that consume less water.

"We need to adjust our needs in light of the available water resources to reduce the risk exposure of both people and our productive sectors in a period of scarcity," said the World Wildlife Fund.

By and large, del Barrio agrees.

"We have to find a balance" to ensure food needs without endangering the soil, he said.

"We need to manage the soil in a way that makes it as sustainable as possible" to avoid the specter of "lifeless" land.



It's Not as World-Famous as Ramen or Sushi. But The Humble Onigiri Is Soul Food in Japan

A variety of onigiri, rice balls, are seen on a plate at a Taro Tokyo Onigiri shop in Tokyo, on June 5, 2024. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)
A variety of onigiri, rice balls, are seen on a plate at a Taro Tokyo Onigiri shop in Tokyo, on June 5, 2024. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)
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It's Not as World-Famous as Ramen or Sushi. But The Humble Onigiri Is Soul Food in Japan

A variety of onigiri, rice balls, are seen on a plate at a Taro Tokyo Onigiri shop in Tokyo, on June 5, 2024. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)
A variety of onigiri, rice balls, are seen on a plate at a Taro Tokyo Onigiri shop in Tokyo, on June 5, 2024. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)

The word “onigiri” became part of the Oxford English Dictionary this year, proof that the humble sticky-rice ball and mainstay of Japanese food has entered the global lexicon.
The rice balls are stuffed with a variety of fillings and typically wrapped in seaweed. It's an everyday dish that epitomizes “washoku” — the traditional Japanese cuisine that was designated a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage a decade ago, The Associated Press said.
Onigiri is “fast food, slow food and soul food,” says Yusuke Nakamura, who heads the Onigiri Society, a trade group in Tokyo.
Fast because you can find it even at convenience stores. Slow because it uses ingredients from the sea and mountains, he said. And soul food because it's often made and consumed among family and friends. No tools are needed, just gently cupped hands.
“It’s also mobile, food on the move,” he said.
Onigiri in its earliest form is believed to go back at least as far as the early 11th Century; it's mentioned in Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji.” It appears in Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1954 film “Seven Samurai” as the ultimate gift of gratitude from the farmers.
What exactly goes into onigiri? The sticky characteristic of Japanese rice is key.
What's placed inside is called “gu,” or filling. A perennial favorite is umeboshi, or salted plum. Or perhaps mentaiko, which is hot, spicy roe. But in principle, anything can be placed inside onigiri, even sausages or cheese.
Then the ball is wrapped with seaweed. Even one nice big onigiri would make a meal, although many people would eat more.
Some stand by the classic onigiri Yosuke Miura runs Onigiri Asakusa Yadoroku, a restaurant founded in 1954 by his grandmother. Yadoroku, which roughly translates to “good-for-nothing,” is named for her husband, Miura's grandfather. It claims to be the oldest onigiri restaurant in Tokyo.
There are just two tables. The counter has eight chairs. Takeout is an option, but you still have to stand in line.
“Nobody dislikes onigiri,” said Miura, smiling behind a wooden counter. In a display case before him are bowls of gu, including salmon, shrimp and miso-flavored ginger. “It’s nothing special basically. Every Japanese has 100% eaten it."
Also a classical flautist, Miura sees onigiri as a score handed down from his grandmother, one which he will reproduce faithfully.
“In classical music, you play what’s written on the music sheet. Onigiri is the same,” he says. “You don’t try to do something new.”
Yadoruku is tucked away in the quaint old part of Tokyo called Asakusa. It opens at 11:30 a.m. and closes when it runs out of rice, usually within the hour. Then it opens again for dinner. The most expensive onigiri costs 770 yen ($4.90), with salmon roe, while the cheapest is 319 yen ($2). That includes miso soup. No reservations are taken.
Although onigiri can be round or square, animal or star-shaped, Miura’s standard is the triangular ones. He makes them to order, right before your eyes, taking just 30 seconds for each.
He places the hot rice in triangular molds that look like cookie cutters, rubs salt on his hands and then cups the rice — three times to gently firm the sides. The crisp nori, or seaweed, is wrapped like a kerchief around the rice, with one end up so it stays crunchy.
The first bite is just nori and rice. The gu comes with your second bite.
“The Yadoroku onigiri will not change until the end of Earth,” Miura said with a grin.
Others want to experiment Miyuki Kawarada runs Taro Tokyo Onigiri, which has four outlets in Japan. She is eyeing Los Angeles, too, and then Paris. Her vision: to make onigiri “the world’s fast food.”
The name Taro was chosen because it’s common, the Japanese equivalent of John or Michael. Onigiri, she says, has mass appeal because it's simple to make, is gluten-free and is versatile.
And other Japanese foods like ramen and sushi have found worldwide popularity, she notes.
At her cheerful, modern shop, workers wearing khaki-colored company T-shirts busily prepare the gu and rice balls in a kitchen visible behind the cash register. The shop only serves takeout.
Kawarada’s onigiri has lots of gu on top, for colorful toppings, instead of inside. Each one comes with a separately wrapped piece of nori to be placed around it right before you eat.
Her gu gets adventurous. Cream cheese is mixed with a pungent Japanese pickle called "iburigakko,” for instance, and each onigiri costs 250 yen ($1.60). Spam and egg onigiri costs 300 yen ($1.90); the one adorned with several types of “kombu,” or edible kelp, called “Dashi Punch X3,” costs 280 yen ($1.80).
“Onigiri is the infinite universe. We don’t get tied down in tradition,” said Kawarada.
The customers Asami Hirano, who stopped in while walking her dog, took a long time choosing her meal at Taro Tokyo Onigiri on a recent day.
“I’ve always loved onigiri since I was a kid. My mother made them,” she said.
Nicolas Foo Cheung, a Frenchman who works nearby as an intern, had been to Taro Tokyo Onigiri a few times before and thinks it’s a good deal. “It’s simple food,” he said.
Miki Yamada, a food promoter, intentionally calls onigiri “omusubi,” the other common word for rice balls, because the latter more clearly refers to the idea of connections. She says her life's mission is to bring people together, especially since the triple earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters hit her family's rice farm in Fukushima, northeastern Japan, in 2011.
“By facing up to omusubi, I have encountered a spirituality, a basic Japanese-ness of sorts,” she said.
There is nothing better, she said, than plain Aizu rice omusubi with a pinch of salt and utterly nothing inside.
“It energizes you. It’s that ultimate comfort food,” she said.