Spain’s prized jamón ibérico under threat from climate crisis

Rising temperatures and low rainfall threaten key ingredient of pigs’ diet – acorns from the dehesa oak forests

Spain’s prized jamón ibérico bellota is under threat from the climate crisis as rising temperatures and low rainfall imperil a key ingredient of the pigs’ diet – acorns.

In a country where pigs are as populous as people, there are many varieties of ham but none is so revered as jamón ibérico bellota, which retails at upwards of €100 (£88) a kilo.

It is produced exclusively from blackfoot pigs, which must spend the last month of their lives gorging on acorns (bellotas) in the dehesa, a type of oak forest peculiar to the west and north-west of Spain.

The problem is that, as a result of unusually hot and dry summers, the oaks are producing fewer acorns. This, plus a drop in the market price, led to a 20% reduction in the jamón ibérico produced last year in Extremadura, one of only four small regions that enjoy the official denominación de origen.

Last year was the hottest on record in Spain and the third driest. Rainfall in Extremadura has fallen by about 35% over the past 50 years.

“The dehesa is made up of holm oaks that are native to damp climates so it’s a relic of when the climate here was different from now,” said Francisco Espárrago, the president of Señorio de Montanera, which produces top quality jamón. “The trees struggle to survive the long, hot and dry summers we’re having now.”

Even if this summer is not as extreme as 2022, Espárrago is not optimistic. “I expect that this year, having survived the drought of last summer and a winter with little rain, will be worst in the 40 years I’ve been working in the dehesa,” he said.

Under the regulations, ham producers are allowed to import acorns from elsewhere but Espárrago is not keen on the idea.

“The main source is Morocco and Algeria, where of course they don’t rear pigs, but I worry that importing acorns may introduce new diseases as happened when we imported palm trees from Egypt,” he said. The red palm weevil was introduced into Spain via Egypt in 1993 and subsequently destroyed tens of thousands of palms.

The finest jamón is produced in some of Spain’s poorest regions and is a vital component of their local economies, accounting for thousands of jobs in areas that are among Europe’s unemployment black spots.

“It’s not just pigs,” says Espárrago, who complains about the lack of funding to replant trees. “If the dehesa doesn’t survive, there will be nowhere to graze cattle either.”


Stephen Burgen in Barcelona

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Climate crisis and neglect threaten Spain’s saffron crop
Growers fear a perfect storm for a tradition that has long bound rural communities together

Sam Jones in Villarrobledo

22, Jan, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
Spaniards face ham shortage as Chinese market gets taste for jamón ibérico
Iberian ham has become the latest sought-after luxury from the west in China, but demand is outstripping supply

Stephen Burgen

26, Nov, 2017 @5:05 PM

Article image
Body of Spain’s fascist party founder to be removed from basilica
Family will rebury José Antonio Primo de Rivera in Madrid cemetery to pre-empt state exhumation

Sam Jones in Madrid

23, Apr, 2023 @4:28 PM

Article image
‘Very precarious’: Europe faces growing water crisis as winter drought worsens
Multiple governments warn of critical water shortages as heatwaves and lack of rain leave river systems depleted

Jon Henley in Paris, Sam Jones in Madrid, Angela Giuffrida in Rome, and Philip Oltermann in Berlin

04, Mar, 2023 @6:00 AM

Article image
Spain’s centre-right Citizens party says it will not run in general election
Decision follows poor performance in Sunday’s regional and municipal elections

Sam Jones in Madrid

30, May, 2023 @4:32 PM

Article image
‘Fuah!’ sure: the vegan foie gras selling out across Spain
The plant-based pate has exceeded the Spanish startup’s expectations as orders fly in

Ashifa Kassam in Madrid

02, Jan, 2023 @11:47 AM

Article image
Catalonia launches operation to clear fish from reservoir to save drinking water
Focus is on Sau reservoir, where water supplies have plunged to their lowest level since 1990

Ashifa Kassam in Madrid

14, Mar, 2023 @3:51 PM

Article image
‘A ticking time bomb’: healthcare under threat across western Europe
They’re supposed to be among the world’s best systems, but ageing populations, Covid and workforce issues are biting

Jon Henley, Kate Connolly in Berlin, Sam Jones in Madrid and Angela Giuffrida in Rome

14, Dec, 2022 @1:48 PM

Article image
Thousands to protest in Madrid over ‘barbaric’ plan to fell over 1,000 trees
Coalition of neighbourhood groups and NGO seek to halt park works that are part of metro system extension

Sam Jones in Madrid

17, Feb, 2023 @3:18 PM

Article image
Spanish startup on ‘mission to save planet’s beer’ from climate crisis
Ekonoke’s hydroponic cultivation of hop plants attracting interest of big-name brewers

Sam Jones in Alcobendas

19, Apr, 2023 @2:32 PM