Much of the produce in British supermarkets comes from a single Spanish region but intensive agriculture is taking an environmental toll .
By Neal Haddaway
Spain is one of Europe’s largest exporters of fresh fruit and vegetables. The warm climate and low-cost production systems satisfy our high demand for year-round supply of tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes, and aubergines, to name a few. But these Spanish fruit and vegetables in our salad drawers and fruit bowls come at a price – not a cost we feel in our own pockets, but one felt by exploited labourers and a heavily degraded environment.
Huge expanses of plastic covered greenhouses in the region of Almería use intensive farming methods with drastic social and environmental impacts. Should we be paying the price for our damaging food habits? And what will happen to this fragile system in the face of trade fluctuations and climate change?
The coast of the Spanish province of Almería stretches over 200 kilometres along the Mediterranean Sea, halfway between Murcia and Malaga in the south-east of the country. It is typically a dry and windy area where ochre limestone and black volcanic hills tumble down to the crystal aquamarine waters – the remnants of natural habitat preserved in the coastal Cabo de Gata Natural Park are bleak but beautiful.
A semi-arid desert and the driest region in continental Europe, the region experiences just 200 mm of rainfall a year. Yet despite these harsh conditions, Almería has, over the last 70 years, developed into one of the most productive sources of fruit and vegetables in Europe.
However, Almeria’s agricultural boom has come at a heavy human and environmental cost. Overexploitation of water resources, plastic and agrochemical pollution, the loss of native habitat, and modern slavery and inhumane working and living conditions of undocumented migrants are some of the key issues.
Experts are now warning that our over-dependence on the region for year-round fruit and vegetables is increasing overseas pressures on environmental and social systems that already suffer from low resilience.
Spanish agriculture supports a huge proportion of Europe’s demand for fresh fruit and vegetables. In 2021, Almería in Andalusia exported 2.9 million euros of courgettes, peppers, melons and a whole suite of other fresh produce. In total, that year, farmers produced almost one billion kilograms of cucumbers, more than 0.7 billion kilograms of tomatoes – adding to a total of 3.5 billion kilograms of all fruit and vegetables.
Some 25% of the UK’s imported peppers come from Almería, with Spain being the single greatest source of all fresh produce imported into Britain. The importance of the region to UK consumers was vividly demonstrated in early 2023 when supermarkets began rationing sales of tomatoes, cucumbers and other produce after unseasonable weather reduced greenhouse production by 21% and 22% for cucumbers and tomatoes.
“It’s relatively easy to get rich here if you have connections – all you need is a phone,” one local research scientist explains. “You buy the products, arrange for a truck to take them to Germany, and you’re earning big money. Since the financial crisis of 2008, the big bucks is in agriculture.”
These produce are all grown under the largest area of greenhouses on the planet – some 32,000 hectares of plastic covered greenhouses (20% larger than the British city of Birmingham). This area alone represents approximately 38% of Spain’s horticultural production, and 80% of the greenhouse crops are destined for foreign markets.
As the demand for out-of-season, affordable fresh produce increases, so, too, do the impacts of these Western purchasing habits. Greenhouse production around Almería grew 20% between 2012 and 2019. The negative social and environmental effects of intensive food production in Almería have been widely known for decades, but beyond incremental technological advancements, little has changed here.
The first water well in Almería was dug in 1943 and Spanish farmers were then encouraged to move to what was an otherwise very poor region experiencing famine. Just over ten years later, farmers discovered that covering vines with plastic increased yields – as did adding sand to protect the soil.
As these practices expanded, so too did the diversity of crops – initially relatively drought-tolerant species like olives and wheat, but soon water-dependent crops like tomatoes and watermelons. Within decades,
Today, the abundant sunlight and mild winters allow growing seasons to be extended – so much so that two or even three harvests of crops could be fitted within one year. Production rates in the greenhouses are 30 times higher than normal farms. These incredibly high yields rely on using greenhouses to control the heat, nutrients, and available water in an otherwise cool-winter and arid environment, and by ensuring there are enough people to nurture and pick the crops.
An undocumented workforce and inhuman conditions
Today, the labour needed to cultivate and harvest the crops in Almería is largely provided by migrants from Africa. In 2018, more than 400 boats carrying c. 12,000 people arrived from Africa, adding to a workforce estimated to be up to 120,000 strong, living in around sixty informal settlements across the region.
In 2016, immigrants comprised 20% of the population in a region with one of the fastest growth rates in Spain. The majority of the greenhouse labourers are undocumented and work illegally for low wages and with no contracts – a report from four years ago stated that migrant workers are typically paid 50-70% of the national minimum wage. This situation is exacerbated by the low prices paid to producers for fresh fruit and vegetables – only 12% of the final selling price for cucumbers, for example.
“Life is very hard here,” says Maria (not her real name), a Moroccan woman in her 60s who came to the region to work after being forced out of Germany by increasing police controls on undocumented workers.
“Here you can work without papers, the police don’t really seem to care, but we get paid very little. Now I can’t work because of my knees, I have nothing.” She tells me that the locals are nice, and that her neighbours take care of her, but without opportunities for work she has no income and faces an uncertain future.
The farm labourers are forced to live in insanitary, unregulated living conditions – slums locally termed ‘chabolas’ – lacking running water, powered with unsafe electricity and poorly stored cooking gas.
Several of these settlements have been targeted by authorities with bulldozers and destroyed, removing them from public view. Such uncertainty and stress unsurprisingly result in social problems like alcoholism.
For migrants who can no longer work, there is little to do, and depression and other mental health issues are common. In one settlement, several of these people who cannot work live together – what one local NGO worker called the ‘by-products’ of the industry – wandering the streets, speaking incoherently, when others are away in the greenhouses.
Some of the inhabitants of these migrant villages are now trapped – their embassies often refuse to co-operate to send them home or facilitate paperwork to become documented in Spain. For others, their health or age prevents them from working and they remain in abject poverty – one elderly Ghanaian man gets angry and upset when chatting with a local NGO about yet more meetings for his paperwork, frustrated into apathy by the lack of support from their own consulate.
Working in the intensive conditions within the enclosed plastic greenhouses also comes with substantial health risks. A recent study found that 37% of Almería greenhouse crop sprayers had elevated rates of spontaneous abortion, mental health issues including depression, and neurologic disorders like headache, tremors and paraesthesia (skin burning or prickling). In addition, greenhouse temperatures in the summer can reach unbearable temperatures, classed as dangerous to human health in July and August.
Walking around one of the migrant worker villages I meet Phillip, an undocumented farm worker from Ghana. He has upbeat music blaring from a tinny speaker in his small bedroom as he sits outside washing clothes.
“I like music”, he explains. “It stops me from thinking too much about this place”.
Intense exploitation of an overexploited and degraded environment
The greenhouses also have an enormous environmental impact. The area of greenhouses in Almería has grown almost 20% in the eight years up to 2019. This expansion along with associated urban developments encroaches on protected areas and threatens the region’s high biodiversity. In one region of El Ejido, flamingos enjoy one of the most strictly protected wetlands just metres from dense expanses of greenhouses.
Intensive farming in these arid conditions requires a vast amount of irrigation water, with 80% of the water demand coming from the local aquifers. Overexploitation of these underground water deposits and the extensive use of pesticides and fertilisers has caused intense pollution (between 20 and 50% of the fertiliser used here leaches down into the water table). The aquifers used to be important sources of drinking water, but now even wells dug 1 km deep bring back corrupted water.
It has been estimated that 33,500 tonnes of plastic waste is produced from the greenhouses every year, with most of it dumped illegally, blocking rivers or ingested by wildlife. A recent necropsy on a dead sperm whale showed it had died after ingesting 17 kg of plastic, mostly from the abandoned greenhouse coverings.
An alternative future?
But what, then are the alternatives? Other major fruit and vegetable producing countries also make use of greenhouses for year-round fruit and vegetables. Dutch greenhouses have a greater yield than those in Spain, but their energy requirements and carbon footprint for heating are far greater, and costs per kilo are around double.
Moroccan greenhouses also produce vast quantities of fresh produce, supplying 68% of France’s tomatoes. Each system has substantial impacts, however, and it is the combination of international demand for high volume, low cost, and continual supply that drives them.
What does this mean for Almería? How will the local economy, farm labourers and the environment cope with a future affected by supply chain problems, trade fluctuations (like Brexit) and, perhaps most significant of all, climate change? Farming in the province accounts for 40% of its GDP, with 95% of farms owned by around 15,000 families.
Importers have a substantial impact on the workforce of these regions – for example, tomato imports to Germany alone are responsible for 0.2% of total Spanish agricultural labour. Climate change is predicted to make the environment less stable, increasing the risks to regional food production through drought, frost and novel pests – this, in turn, will affect the food resilience of importing nations. At the same time, the world will see a rising demand for fresh fruit and vegetables, more diverse diets, and a greater volume of out-of-season produce.
Together with climate change and political instability, these factors could dangerously increase risks to supply chains and impacts on food security. For example, as a result of the recent poor greenhouse productivity caused by unseasonably cold weather, supply to British supermarkets failed, whilst the EU shelves remained stocked.
Whilst mainstream media in the UK pointed the finger at the weather, Brexit certainly played a role in where supply chains across the continent were affected. Whilst it is hard to attribute the weather explicitly to climate change, these kinds of disruptions will definitely become more common as the climate warms.
The social and environmental impacts of the “sea of plastic” greenhouses in Almería represent the unseen costs of the British demand for abundant and low-cost year-round fruit and vegetables. This unsustainable system has developed to answer an unquenchable European thirst. If we want an ethical, sustainable and secure food production system in Britain, politics and business must take stock of these impacts of our food choices, and plan for a better system.
British consumers deserve to know the true cost of the food on our plates – something supermarkets have prevented us from considering. This is not a luxury others can afford.
All images by Neal Haddaway