An Urban's Rural View

Spain, Where Agriculture Migrated

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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When I started studying the history of Spain in preparation for touring the country this fall, I expected to read tales of battles and political machinations. Spain was occupied by Muslims for 700 years so I anticipated lectures about the interplay of Islam and Christianity. I figured I'd get up to speed on the Spanish Inquisition, the Spanish Armada and the Spanish flu.

What I didn't expect was to learn so much about the migration of agriculture. I didn't realize studying Spanish history would yield insights into the history of agricultural-technology transfer.

In hindsight, I shouldn't have been surprised. The flows of agricultural goods and technologies from other parts of Europe, Africa and Asia to the Iberian Peninsula make perfect sense. Spain is the ultimate crossroads country, linking Europe and Africa, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, the Old World and the New. Thanks to its unique geography, Spain has always been a destination for travelers, conquerors and immigrants, with all that implies for the accompanying movement of things agricultural.

The peoples who came and settled down in Spain over the millennia included the early hominids; the Celts; the Phoenicians; the Greeks; the Romans; the Jews; the Suivi; the Vandals; the Alani; the Visigoths; and the Arabic and North African Muslims. Quite naturally they brought with them plants, animals and agricultural practices.

One of my principal sources of study was a Great Courses course, "The History of Spain: Land on a Crossroad" (…). It consists of 24 half-hour lectures by a retired University of Wisconsin professor, Joyce Salisbury. In them she neatly ties together the interweaving strands of Spain's political, cultural and economic history. I counted more than 30 references to food and agriculture.

One of the first was her description of the "new farmers" who arrived from the Middle East in 7000 BCE with their sheep and goats, pigs and cattle, barley, wheat and legumes. A few thousand years later came the Celts, herding long-horned cattle. In the middle of the first millennium BCE, Greeks settled in Spain bearing olive trees and wine grapes. The Phoenicians and Romans bore more of these gifts when they arrived in Spain. (Wine historians' best guess about the first place to make wine isn't Greece or Italy but Armenia, around 6,000 years ago (…).

During its years as part of the Roman empire, Spain exported, to places far and yon, a wildly popular food flavoring called garum. Europeans didn't have a lot of spices in those days but they did have garum, a sauce made by fermenting salted fish intestines. Spanish garum was so highly prized that it was considered a delicacy across Europe and the Middle East.

When the Roman empire fell, Germanic tribes moved into Spain. These "barbarians," as the Romans called them, introduced an agricultural technology that worked much better in the sandy soils of southern Spain than the Romans' shallow plow. The Germani used a large, wheeled plow drawn by six to eight oxen.

Rome's famous aqueducts allowed fields to be irrigated, but this irrigation depended on gravity. When the Muslims arrived in the eighth century, they gave Spain water wheels, which allowed more fields to be irrigated and water-thirsty crops to be grown. The Muslims also brought sugar cane from India.

A Muslim scholar from Persia bestowed a way of eating that has become synonymous with Spain -- meals of many small dishes known as tapas. A later Muslim scholar in Spain, Avicenna, was one of the first advocates of changes in diet as a way of treating diseases.

And then, of course, there were all the plants and animals Spanish and other explorers introduced to the Americas, not the least of which was the ubiquitous dandelion, which hitchhiked in the hay the explorers shipped for their horses. Plus the things the explorers brought back to Europe, like chocolate, tomatoes, potatoes and tobacco.

Like so much of the past, all this just sort of happened. No one in Spain -- or anywhere else, for that matter -- gave much forethought to it. No one pondered the ecological and environmental consequences of relocating plants, animals and technologies. Trial and error were the only rules. Human beings moved things from place to place willy-nilly.

It's different today, needless to say. Agricultural trade and technology transfer are more common than ever, but we are more aware than ever that introduced species lacking natural predators can reproduce rapidly, crowding out native species, unbalancing ecosystems and undermining human health and prosperity.

Agricultural checkpoints at borders seem natural and justifiable to modern sensibilities. We've seen what can happen when they're ineffective: exotic species take hold and cause floods, fires, erosion, crop diseases, disappearing rangeland, played-out fisheries, declining land values and more (…). Today no one doubts invasive species can be a problem.

What studying the history of Spain reminded me of is that not all agricultural relocations are bad. They're not all like the brown tree snake, which has extirpated most of the forest birds of Guam, or the Indian mongoose, which damages Hawaii's papaya and banana crops, or kudzu, which according to the Nature Conservancy is "terrorizing native plants all over southeastern United States and making its way into Indiana" (…). Some species can be introduced without upsetting ecosystems and destroying biodiversity.

The potato and the dandelion were both introduced to North America. We love one, but can definitely do without the other. Our concerns about invasives are rational; absolute bans on international transfers are not. Thank you, Professor Salisbury, for helping me think about that, along with so many other wonderful things you taught me about Spain.


And now it's just about time to fly off to Spain. An Urban's Rural View, not to mention Urban, will be back in mid-November.

Urban Lehner can be reached at



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