Greening the Islands Foundation

Innovative Technologies, Nature – Based Solutions, and Water-Energy-Food Nexus in Agriculture Can Drive Islands ’ Sustainable Development, Security, and Resilience

Island territories, primarily due to their physical structure and isolation, were spaces where agriculture played a significant part in their subsistence economy, as the local population’s need for resources prioritized the use of land for production over the importation of foreign products, primarily transported by sea.  

Although a balance between what was needed and what was produced was never achieved, the use of agriculture as a food source sustained local populations for long periods. 

The gradual arrival of tourism on the islands marked a shift in the economic paradigm towards using land for the construction of service infrastructures. Additionally, this necessary emergence of a new economic sector posed a dual problem with the agricultural sector.  

On one hand, the opportunity to work in the tertiary sector drew new generations away from land use, offering better-paid and less arduous jobs than in agriculture. This reduction in agricultural personnel contributed to the progressive loss of the value scale of traditional agricultural knowledge, along with significant abandonment of cultivable land.  

On the other hand, the demand for agricultural products by tourism is so high that it cannot be met with local production, even partly competing with the needs of the island inhabitants, inevitably leading to an increase in the importation of foreign products. This massive importation, mainly via maritime and, to a lesser extent, air transport, generates economic and environmental impacts that are unsustainable but attributable to the island territories. 

Moreover, climate tension is increasing. Soon, and in many island regions, water resources will become increasingly difficult to obtain (long periods without precipitation, ever-decreasing relative humidity, etc.), making it urgent to promote and advance the final processes of the water cycle.  

It is necessary to reserve as much potable water as possible for human consumption and distribute the large amount of regenerated water produced in the third purification cycle (advanced stage of wastewater treatment that raises quality to higher standards through chlorination, ultraviolet irradiation, membrane filtration, constructed wetlands, microalgae cultivation, etc.,  meeting specific requirements for safe discharge and drinking purposes) to agriculture, incorporating it exclusively in the quantity and quality necessary for crops. 

In this regard, studies conducted at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria on the use of regenerated waters in agriculture, with the participation of the Canary Islands Institute for Agricultural Research (ICIA), the Canary Islands Institute of Technology (ITC), and private sector companies, have led to the conviction that a perfect resource is available to minimize the demand for natural water in the agricultural sector. The availability of regenerated water on agricultural plots for use can be increased with novel techniques that reduce, for example, evaporation at the time of irrigation through semi-buried pipes. 

This progressive water technification in the agricultural sector must be accompanied by the implementation of other advanced technologies such as agrivoltaics – where agriculture coexists with solar energy generation – and nature-based solutions, particularly highlighting the use of organic waste.  

This last resource has historically been part of agricultural practices, implementing circularity in the utilization of own resources from agricultural waste along with the contribution of organic matter from the livestock sector, but currently its value is enhanced by the possibility of treating it in anaerobic biodigestion processes for the production of gas and fertilizer. 

It is essential that sustainability initiatives locally promoted by the administrative and technical management of the island territories be supported by a global action that considers the preservation and promotion of this sustainability at a local level.  

In this way, agricultural policies must be specifically adapted to the peculiarities of island realities. In Europe, the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) offers an opportunity for island member states to design strategic plans that promote sustainable agricultural practices such as reducing the use of toxic pesticides, promoting organic farming, and improving agricultural knowledge and innovation systems (AKIS). 

Added to these European legislative processes, initiatives like those of the GTI Observatory encourage the preservation of native island crops through a variety of sustainable techniques and by advising island institutions on drafting and implementing specific and effective policies that consolidate the local sustainable agricultural sector. 

Undoubtedly, the revitalization of agriculture on islands should not only be seen as a measure to support food sovereignty of the territory but as part of an integral strategy that incorporates water management, renewable energy, and waste management solutions, and can address various economic, social, and environmental challenges with these tools. 

For this, it is essential that governments, the research sector, and local communities work together in adopting an integrated approach that equally values technological innovation and agricultural tradition as a basis for promoting sustainability and food sovereignty. 

A sustainable agricultural economy is vital for the cultural identity and environmental health of any island territory. Transforming these challenges into opportunities, islands can and should progressively become sustainable agricultural models, leveraging this strength to act as pioneers in the fight against climate change and environmental issues. 

Gonzalo Piernavieja

Gonzalo Piernavieja

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