Uberizing Agriculture in Drylands: A Few Enriched, Everyone Endangered

Jaime Martínez-Valderrama*, Rolando Gartzia, Jorge Olcina, Emilio Guirado, Javier Ibáñez, Fernando T. Maestre

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The future of water resources relies heavily on food production. Large-scale agriculture, driven by irrigation technology and cost reduction, has transformed traditional dryland croplands into a very profitable but environmentally and socially impactful agribusiness. The study of groundwater-dependent food systems is fragmented. Hydrology, on one hand, concentrates on water resources while overlooking surface agricultural processes. Meanwhile, the agro-economic sector is fixated on optimizing resource utilization for short-term profit maximization. Consequently, numerous adverse environmental and social consequences are overlooked by these conventional approaches. To steer resource usage and our food systems in a new direction, prioritizing the integration of this collective knowledge is imperative. Here, we analyze the impacts of greenhouse agriculture in SE Spain, one of the global hotspots of fruit and vegetable production. Through the lens of the treadmill of production theory we uncover the model’s significant profitability and its environmental and social effects, which include unequal wealth distribution, precarious working conditions, and the depletion and pollution of belowground water reserves. Reducing water use and limiting the development of new irrigated areas, using crop species adapted to available water resources, and empowering farmers against large distributors are key measures to avoid the social and economic collapse of this region, and of other dryland areas that have followed a similar unsustainable development model. The need for these changes becomes more pressing as the impacts of climate change continue to escalate. Within this context, groundwater reserves represent vital strategic resources that must not be wasted.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)193-214
Number of pages22
JournalWater Resources Management
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2024


  • Agrobusiness
  • Desertification
  • Drylands
  • Groundwater degradation
  • Treadmill of production
  • Water demand management

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Civil and Structural Engineering
  • Water Science and Technology


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