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This paper explores the critical need for sustainable agriculture, underscoring its importance for both agricultural professionals and society. It discusses how methods such as certified organic and biodynamic agriculture, which avoid harmful chemicals, are crucial for preserving essential natural resources, such as water and soil. Despite these benefits, organic agriculture still represents a small portion of global agricultural land, accounting for just 7.3% of vineyards worldwide by 2020, according to FiBL and OIV.

Additionally, this passage contrasts the historic, biodiversity-supporting practices of viticulture with modern intensive farming methods. These contemporary practices, marked by mechanization and heavy chemical use, have led to environmental degradation, including biodiversity loss, soil erosion, and water contamination, highlighting a significant shift from past practices (Altieri and Nicholls, 2002; Schütte et al., 2020; Zaller et al., 2015).

In response to these issues, the European Union implemented the new Common Agricultural Policy, which promotes sustainable agricultural practices such as crop rotation and green manure. This policy is aligned with the European Green Deal and aims to foster long-term agricultural resilience across the EU, with specific measures tailored for vineyards in countries such as Spain, which is a major player in European viticulture (Folkard-Tapp et al., 2021; Ochoa-Hueso et al., 2024; Boix-Fayos and de Vente, 2023; European Council, 2021).

Origin and evolution of grape cultivation in the Iberian peninsula: from antiquity to the new Common Agricultural Policy

The presence of wild grapevines, specifically Vitis vinifera subsp. sylvestris, in the Iberian Peninsula traces back to ancient times, indicating an enduring engagement with viticulture in the region and other parts of southern Europe since the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. These wild varieties naturally interbred with domesticated vines introduced from the Near East, creating a rich heritage of grape cultivation (Dong et al., 2023). The formal introduction of grape cultivation is credited to the Phoenicians around 1100 B.C., who brought with them agricultural practices that resonate with those used today. Their influence is evident from archaeological finds in regions like Cadiz and Huelva, which showcase the early presence of viticulture in the Iberian Peninsula (Estreicher, 2013; González de Canales et al., 2020; Pérez-Jordà et al., 2017; Piqueras, 2014).

During the Roman era, viticulture expanded significantly across the Peninsula, with agronomists employing sophisticated techniques that included thoughtful site selection, diverse grape variety cultivation, and advanced pruning and irrigation methods. These techniques were aimed at optimizing grape quality for wine production and were extensively documented by Columela, who emphasized the benefits of organic fertilization and strategic vineyard placement to combat environmental challenges (Columela, 1824).

Following the decline of the Roman Empire, the Vandals and subsequently the Visigoths took over the Iberian Peninsula, continuing the Roman viticultural traditions without introducing significant innovations to the existing methods (Estreicher, 2013). However, a notable enhancement of these viticultural practices occurred when the Muslims conquered the region in 711. They brought with them advanced agricultural knowledge, documented in detailed agricultural treatises. These treatises covered a range of improved cultivation techniques and pest control methods that played a crucial role during the Middle Ages and had a lasting impact on agricultural practices in the region (Alonso et al., 2014; Bolens, 1975; Carabaza Bravo, 2013).

Viticulture has been a continuous presence throughout the centuries, with Spanish wines becoming well known both within Spain and globally. Nevertheless, the industry experienced severe disruption in the late 19th century due to the grape phylloxera epidemic, which destroyed more than half of the vineyard areas in Spain over a period of three decades (Hidalgo and Hidalgo, 2011). The onset of the Spanish Civil War further exacerbated the situation, disrupting agricultural operations and causing considerable losses (Zambrana Pineda, 2006).

The second half of the 20th century represented a pivotal moment, as traditional farming practices began to be replaced by modern methods. This shift was driven by urban migration and increasing labor costs, which led to greater mechanization and the adoption of chemical-intensive farming techniques associated with the Green Revolution. However, these changes have also brought about significant environmental and social costs, leading to a critical reassessment of agricultural methods. This reassessment was encapsulated in the new Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union, which now prioritizes environmental sustainability and climate resilience (European Council, 2021). The ongoing evolution of viticulture in the Iberian Peninsula, shaped by these historical events and policy shifts under the new CAP, highlights a dynamic landscape influenced by both longstanding cultural traditions and recent technological progress.

Evolution of the common agricultural policy and its influence on viticulture

Since the establishment of the Common Agricultural Policy following the Treaty of Rome in 1957, the European Union has navigated through evolving agricultural challenges and policy reforms. Initially, the Common Agricultural Policy was divided into two distinct parts: a policy focusing on price and market regulation, which was predominant in terms of resource allocation, and a structural policy, which later evolved into a rural development policy. The creation of the first Common Market Organisations (CMOs) and the European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund in 1962 marked the beginning of systematic efforts to stabilize agricultural markets through price-support policies known as the system of guaranteed prices. This system aimed to boost productivity and ensure a stable food supply but eventually led to surplus production and significant market distortions (MAPA, 2023c).

The MacSharry Reform in 1992 signaled a major shift in the Common Agricultural Policyapproach by reducing the reliance on price support and introducing compensatory payments to offset price cuts, setting a precedent for subsequent reforms (European Council, 2021). This reform was part of a broader strategy encapsulated in Agenda 2000, which sought to decrease the scope of guarantee schemes and integrate agricultural competitiveness with rural development, thus enhancing social cohesion in rural areas.

Figure 1. Schematic timeline summary of Common Agricultural Policy reforms.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) witnessed significant advancement in 2003 with the implementation of a single payment scheme. This new scheme eliminated the link between subsidies and production quantities instead of tying them to environmental compliance via a mechanism called conditionality. Additional reforms were introduced between 2009 and 2013, further diminishing market interventions and fortifying the disconnection between subsidies and production, resulting in a CAP that is now focused on environmental objectives.

The 2013 reform explicitly included environmental objectives, implementation of green payments, and other measures supported by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) to promote sustainable agricultural practices. The most recent reform, which began in January 2023, showcases even more ambitious environmental and climate goals, featuring a green architecture comprising enhanced conditionality, eco-schemes, and agri-environmental payments. These modifications reflect the dedication to aligning the Common Agricultural Policy more closely with the EU’s comprehensive environmental and climate policies (European Council, 2021).

Figure 2. Novelties in the Common Market Organisation (CMO) for the wine sector after the Common Agricultural Policy reform of 2023 and Planned interventions in the ISV of Spain.

The wine sector, which is a significant part of European agriculture, has a particularly high level of regulation within the Common Agricultural Policy. The wine CMO, established in 1962, has undergone several reforms to manage supply and demand issues, including measures to restrict new plantations and mandate the distillation of surplus production. More drastic steps were taken in the late 1980s, when vineyard removal was encouraged to align production more closely with market needs. The most recent adjustments came with the Common Agricultural Policy regulations for 2023-2027, which aim to enhance the competitiveness of EU wine producers and ensure market balance while preserving quality designations (European Commission 2004). These developments reflect the continual evolution of the Common Agricultural Policy a policy framework focused primarily on market stability and productivity to one increasingly centered on sustainability, environmental stewardship, and climate resilience.

Implications of the new Common Agricultural Policy for vine cultivation

The Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union has undergone significant transformation since its inception, evolving from a policy focused on boosting productivity and self-sufficiency in basic food supplies to one that prioritizes environmental sustainability and the reduction of agriculture’s impact on natural resources and climate. This shift signifies a move from purely supporting agricultural productivity to fostering the comprehensive development of rural areas with an emphasis on sustainable practices that ensure the long-term viability of agricultural land. The 2023 Common Agricultural Policy reform epitomizes this shift, aligning closely with the EU’s broader environmental policies and marking it as the most ambitious reform aimed at environmental protection (European Council, 2021).

Historically, many of the agricultural practices reintroduced by the new Common Agricultural Policy, such as fallowing and the incorporation of plant residues back into the soil, have been utilized by ancient civilizations but have been largely abandoned. These practices are being revived as part of a strategy to sustainably manage agricultural lands in the face of global challenges, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and the contamination of fertile lands and water resources.

The new greener Common Agricultural Policypresents particular challenges for vineyard operators, especially those who have not previously implemented sustainable practices. One significant change under the new Common Agricultural Policy is the strengthened conditionality requirements, such as the mandate to establish vegetative cover on sloped lands, which could increase the operational complexity and costs for farmers. This requirement is particularly challenging in dry regions, where competition for water is intense, potentially affecting soil moisture and crop yields, as noted in studies by Medrano et al. (2015) and Monteiro and Lopes (2007). However, despite these challenges, research indicates that vegetative cover can enhance biodiversity and provide multiple ecosystem services, often outweighing the initial disadvantages (Chapela-Oliva et al., 2022; Guerra and Steenwerth, 2012; Winter et al., 2018).

Another aspect of Common Agricultural Policy reform affecting vineyards involves the allocation of direct payments, with approximately 25% of these funds directed towards eco-schemes. These schemes offer voluntary payments to farmers who engage in environmentally friendly practices such as establishing vegetative or inert covers or allocating spaces for biodiversity conservation. Compensation is designed to offset potential increases in production costs or reductions in harvests owing to these practices.

Despite these inherent challenges, adherence to the new Common Agricultural Policy is crucial for meeting the EU’s commitments under international environmental agreements, such as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity. These agreements set forth objectives and obligations for signatory nations to tackle pressing environmental issues through measures to mitigate climate change, conserve biodiversity, and promote sustainable development. Common Agricultural Policy reform supports these goals by incentivizing agricultural practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, enhance carbon sequestration, and support biodiversity conservation. This includes improved soil management, reduced use of fertilizers, increased production of renewable energy on farms, and promotion of sustainable land use practices that minimize habitat destruction and fragmentation.

Organic agriculture and vineyards

The concept of organic agriculture is meticulously defined under Regulation (EU) 2018/848 as a farming system that integrates the best environmental and climate practices, promotes biodiversity, conserves natural resources, and adheres to high animal welfare and production standards. This type of agriculture is increasingly appealing to consumers, who prefer products derived from natural substances and processes. Over the past two decades, the area dedicated to organic agriculture has expanded significantly, growing six-fold and cover approximately 74.9 million hectares by 2020. The European Union has also seen substantial growth in this sector, with around 14.7 million hectares utilized for organic farming in the same year. Spain ranks second in the EU, after France, in terms of organic crop area, with 2.4 million hectares, representing 10.8% of its total agricultural land (EUROSTAT, 2023; MAPA, 2023d).

Globally, the area allocated to organic vineyards reached 506,400 ha in 2020, accounting for 7.3% of the total vineyard area. Europe dominates this segment, with approximately 430,000 hectares of organic vineyards, accounting for 85% of the global total. In Spain, organic vineyards account for 14% of the nation’s total vineyard area, although the distribution across different regions is uneven (MAPA, 2023d).

The regulatory framework governing organic farming in the EU is detailed in Regulation (EU) 2018/848, with additional specifications provided in Annex IV. Transitioning from crop to organic methods involves a certification process overseen by either a public control authority or a private control body accredited by a competent authority. For instance, in Spain, regional governments are responsible for organic production and delegate control of these activities to bodies accredited by the Spanish National Accreditation Body (ENAC). According to the regulations, perennial crops, such as vineyards, must undergo a conversion period of at least three years under organic standards before the first organic harvest can be realized. This period starts when the farmer registers their operations with the competent authority and agrees with the stipulated control regime. Although products from the conversion period cannot be sold as organic, they can be marketed as ‘products in conversion’ if they have been under conversion for at least 12 months before harvesting.

Managing an organic vineyard comes with certain restrictions on inputs and prescribed cultural practices that might initially suggest higher operational costs than conventional vineyards. However, Borsato et al. (2020) revealed that organic vineyards fare better in terms of environmental impact and economic productivity. This research compared various indicators, such as water and carbon footprints, along with other aspects of vineyard management. The results indicated that organic vineyards had a smaller water and carbon footprint and were 11% less environmentally damaging, considering factors such as fertilizer use, erosion, organic matter loss, soil compaction, pesticides, and landscape impact. Interestingly, despite the potentially higher initial costs, organic vineyards demonstrated lower total expenses and higher gross income, resulting in a net income advantage of approximately €2,000 per hectare compared to conventional vineyards.

Organic viticulture as a tool to cope with the new Common Agricultural Policy

Organic viticulture in the European Union has considerable potential for growth, as evidenced by the fact that only 14% of vineyards in Spain utilize organic farming methods. The demand for organic products, including those from the wine sector, has been on the rise, reflecting a broader consumer shift towards products made from natural substances and processes. This increase aligns with the new Common Agricultural Policy, which emphasizes sustainable agricultural practices.

Creating favorable microclimatic conditions in vineyards is crucial for promoting healthy crop growth, while minimizing disease. Proper orientation and management of the vineyard can significantly enhance air circulation around the vines, which helps reduce the incidence of diseases; this is an important consideration given the organic mandate to reduce reliance on chemical phytosanitary products (Hunter et al. 2016).

The promotion of biodiversity within agricultural ecosystems is a key strategy. High biodiversity supports the natural processes that enhance the resilience of these systems to pests and diseases. Encouraging biodiversity through the use of cover crops, establishment of hedgerows, and creation of green corridors can greatly benefit vineyard ecosystems. These practices not only help maintain and increase biodiversity, but also improve soil quality and structure, enhance microbial biomass, and reduce erosion, thereby supporting the overall health and sustainability of the vineyard (Landis, 2017; Albrecht et al., 2020; Bordoni et al., 2019; Virto et al., 2012).

However, managing biodiversity can be complex and involves strategic restoration of degraded ecosystems. This might include the introduction of native plants and microbial communities from other regions, which presents logistical and regulatory challenges, especially in compliance with international treaties, such as the Nagoya Protocol (Duff et al., 2024; Rega et al., 2018).

Soil fertility is of paramount importance in organic viticultures. Practices such as using cover crops, reducing tillage, and adding organic matter, including composted manure and vine pruning residues, are essential. These practices help to maintain optimal levels of organic matter, thus supporting soil fertility and the agronomic value of the land. The incorporation of organic amendments not only enhances soil structure and fertility but also has disease-suppressing effects, which are crucial for maintaining the health of vines (MARM, 2008; Borrero et al., 2009, 2013; Mulero-Aparicio et al., 2020).

In terms of weed and pest management, organic vineyards often employ mechanical methods for weed control, such as mowing, or use specialized equipment such as roller crimpers. Organic regulation also promotes the use of biological methods for pest and disease control. This includes fostering beneficial fauna, such as ladybugs, lacewings, and beneficial microorganisms, which naturally reduce pest populations and disease incidence. When necessary, organic farmers can use certain approved chemical treatments that are environmentally less harmful, as specified in EU regulations (Fisk et al., 2001; Nicholls et al., 2000; Hommay et al., 2002; Ricarte et al., 2011; Ruiz de Escudero et al., 2007; Sattar et al., 2018; Sattar & Abro, 2011; Yu et al., 2014; Commission Implementing Regulation 2021/1165).

Overall, the integration of these sustainable practices under the new Common Agricultural Policy offers a pathway toward more environmentally friendly and resilient agricultural systems, aligning with the broader goals of reducing the negative impact of agriculture on the environment and promoting long-term sustainable development.

Bringing the past into the future: agronomic practices of ancient civilisations relevant for the new Common Agricultural Policy

Organic viticulture in the European Union has substantial potential for expansion, as evidenced by the fact that only 14% of vineyards in Spain currently use organic farming methods, despite growing consumer demand for organic wine and other products produced using natural processes. This trend towards organic production aligns well with the objectives of the new Common Agricultural Policy, which emphasizes the importance of sustainable agricultural practices.

One of the key elements of sustainable vineyard management is the creation of favorable microclimatic conditions. Proper vineyard orientation and management can significantly enhance air circulation around the vines, which helps reduce the incidence of diseases. This is especially critical in organic viticulture, where the use of chemical phytosanitary products is minimal. Therefore, agronomic techniques that modify the microclimate can have a positive impact on the health and productivity of vineyards (Hunter et al., 2016).

The promotion of biodiversity is a crucial strategy for sustainable agricultural systems. A high degree of biodiversity enhances the resilience of these systems to pests and diseases, by supporting natural processes. Practices such as establishing cover crops, hedgerows, and green corridors not only help maintain and increase biodiversity but also improve soil properties and reduce erosion, thus enhancing the overall sustainability of the vineyard (Landis, 2017; Albrecht et al., 2020; Bordoni et al., 2019; Virto et al., 2012).

However, enhancing biodiversity often involves complex management strategies, including the restoration of degraded ecosystems. This may require the introduction of native plants and microbial communities from other regions, presenting both logistical and regulatory challenges. Complying with international agreements, such as the Nagoya Protocol, can add to these complexities, particularly when sourcing biological inputs beyond national borders (Duff et al., 2024; Rega et al., 2018).

Maintaining soil fertility is of paramount importance in organic viticulture. Techniques that increase soil organic matter, such as the use of cover crops, reduced or no-tillage practices, or the addition of organic matter from sources, such as composted manure and vine pruning residues, are essential. These methods not only improve soil structure and fertility but also have disease-suppressing effects, which are crucial for the health of organic vineyards (MARM, 2008; Borrero et al., 2009, 2013; Mulero-Aparicio et al., 2020).

Effective weed and pest management in organic vineyards often involves mechanical methods for weed control, such as mowing, or using specialized equipment such as roller crimpers. Additionally, fostering a population of beneficial organisms, including ladybugs, lacewings, wasps, and beneficial microorganisms, helps reduce pest populations and disease incidence. In cases where these preventive measures are insufficient, organic regulations permit the use of certain environmentally less harmful chemical treatments listed under EU regulations (Fisk et al., 2001; Nicholls et al., 2000; Hommay et al., 2002; Ricarte et al., 2011; Ruiz de Escudero et al., 2007; Sattar et al., 2018; Sattar & Abro, 2011; Yu et al., 2014; Commission Implementing Regulation 2021/1165).

Overall, the integration of these sustainable practices under the new Common Agricultural Policy offers a pathway toward more environmentally friendly and resilient agricultural systems, aligning with broader goals of reducing the negative impact of agriculture on the environment and promoting long-term sustainable development.

Figure 3. Strategies to achieve the goals of new Common Agricultural Policy in vineyards based on historical solutions and innovation tools. The colour code relates the different key aspects of the New Common Agricultural Policy with their objectives and the historical practices and innovation tools that could help to achieve the goals.

Summary of green solutions within context of the new Common Agricultural Policy

In this paper, the authors traced the trajectory of viticulture from antiquity to the modern era, highlighting a significant shift in agricultural focus. Historically, agricultural systems have prioritized increasing crop yields, often overlooking the resultant environmental degradation and negative effects on natural ecosystems. Today, with the recognition of high environmental costs, loss of biodiversity, and the urgent need to address climate change, there has been a pivotal change in agricultural policy within the European Union (Rudnicki et al., 2023).

The recent reform of the Common Agricultural Policy introduced a series of new obligations and incentives designed to encourage EU farmers to adopt more sustainable and environmentally friendly practices. For vine cultivation, this includes adhering to stringent conditions and participating in eco-schemes that promote the use of vegetative or inert covers, as well as converting to organic or regenerative farming. These measures aim to foster agricultural systems that are not only sustainable and resilient, but also capable of contributing to climate change adaptation and mitigation, efficient management of natural resources, enhancement of ecosystem services, and preservation of natural habitats.

The authors advocate the widespread dissemination of agroecological knowledge related to the nature-based strategies discussed in this manuscript. For the effective implementation of the new Common Agricultural Policy, it is crucial that all segments of society, including producers, consumers, legislators, and other stakeholders, are informed about and committed to the environmental protection measures required in agricultural systems. Leveraging nature-based solutions and time-tested historical strategies can help producers meet their Common Agricultural Policy obligations without escalating production costs, while simultaneously improving the quality of agricultural ecosystems and products.

The connection between the new green architecture of Common Agricultural Policy 2023–2027, organic farming, and agricultural methods based on ancient natural techniques, is clear. However, the success of these initiatives depends on our ability to effectively communicate the importance and benefits of biodiversity conservation and the role of natural soil processes in sustainable agriculture. Without constructing compelling narratives about these topics, the adoption of conservation measures may not proceed quickly enough to align our production systems with contemporary environmental challenges

Read the paper at: Homet P, Gallardo-Reina MÁ, Aguiar JF, Liberal IM, Casimiro-Soriguer R, Ochoa-Hueso R. Viticulture and the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy: Historical overview, current situation and future perspective. J Sustain Agric Environ. 2024; 3:e12099. https://doi.org/10.1002/sae2.12099


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