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“El Mar de Plastico” or the greenhouse horticulture production of Almeria – guest contribution

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Europe’s green spot? About 30 kilometres southwest of the city of Almeria in the Spanish province of the same name, 26,000 hectares of the land were already covered by greenhouses in 2007. Over the past 50 years, the region has been intensively developed for agricultural production. Beginning in the 1970ies Almeria’s agriculture has shifted from open field production to greenhouse production of early and out of season vegetables. A recent study listed several reasons for Almeria’s economic success. One reason identified was Spain’s joining of the EU in 1986 as this allowed the country to export food products to European markets custom free. There was also strong government support and development of infrastructure, technical advice and investments to the area combined with the knowledge of immigrant farmers and their experience in growing this type of crop. Furthermore the cheap labour costs contribute to a competitive advantage of Almeria’s products (Barcelona Field Studies Centre 2014).

The area today constitutes the largest concentration of greenhouses worldwide (Campra et al 2008) and 60% of Spain’s total horticultural production takes place in this area (oral information: Milagros Fernandez, 13.03.2014). More than half of Europe’s demand for fresh fruit and vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchinis, lettuce, melons etc. is produced in Almeria annually and mainly exported to Britain followed by France and Germany. The area is of a dry and mild Mediterranean climate with just about 200 millimetres of annual precipitation. In contrast, an average greenhouse requires 800 to 1000 mm rainfall per year (Barcelona Field Studies Center 2014). That is why the area is so much dependent on groundwater coming from small streams down the mountains and water reserves to grow anything here.

Plant production requires inputs and chemicals that are pursued from all over the world. Therefore plants can grow out of a pot filled with artificial soils or coco fibre (for example from Saudi Arabia) which is why it does not matter that the soil is generally poor and rocky. Nutrition and fertilizers are added via an irrigation system and the use of chemicals is intended to be kept as little as possible. Within this type of production soil can be substituted by a substrate and a selective addition of necessary nutrients and artificial fertilization. The method allows water, nutrition and fertilization to be used efficiently. Furthermore it is not dependent on local soil quality.

It’s the economy, stupid!

The horticulture production helped the region to develop economically and it keeps expanding. A high number of new greenhouses are built each year. The average annual profit is estimated to be about four billion Euros. Other sources estimate Almeria’s food exports of the first quarter of 2012 to amount to 1,4 billion Euros (Daily Mail Reporter 2013).

One reason for Almeria’s economic success is that production costs are less than half of those in Holland. Energy costs are low and greenhouses are often self-made (Barcelona Field Studies Center 2014). Labour is cheap due to the high number of employed migrants and the fact that businesses are family-run, where people generally tend to work more for less money.

A drop of…

The water for the greenhouse production comes from a reserve in the Sierra nearby. Resulting from intensive irrigation and low rainfalls the water level declines about two meters every year, which is why it is very important to investigate in finding alternative water sources. One alternative would be to recycle the used water of Almeria’s residents. To secure water supplies also desalinization techniques are a big issue in the area, since alternative water sources are more expensive and require higher energy inputs, especially when it comes to seawater desalination plants which are highly energy intensive.

A further problem in Almeria is the rapid spread of pests and diseases. There is hardly a greenhouse which has no pest or disease-related problems. The conditions for the spreading of pests are very good and most of them are developing a resistance against the used insecticides.

Leaving a footprint…

Any human activity has impacts on the environment, so does the horticulture in Almeria. Some sources say that the greenhouses in Spain produce 45,000 tons of plastic waste every year. This plastic waste can be very harmful to marine life like whales, fish or sea birds. Some newspaper sources are linking the death of a sperm whale to this plastic waste. It is necessary to pay more attention to the unintended external effects created by Almeria’s greenhouse production.

A recent study just showed that the high number of greenhouses created a surface albedo effect leading to a cooler surface temperature (Campra et al 2008). This albedo effect can be seen positively regarding climate change. But it is also dramatically changing local micro climate. In the future it will be necessary to learn more about environmental impacts and negative external effects. Pollution, like the one created by plastic bags, will lead to higher costs in the future and can be harmful to local ecosystems.

Modern slavery ?

About 100,000 migrants are estimated to work in the greenhouse production sector. They are mainly coming from Africa but also from Latin America and Eastern Europe. They are exploited as cheap labour forces to lower production costs. Average daily wages amount to 33 to 36 Euros. Since migrants depend on the income and have no other possibilities it is easy to lower wages and pay part of it illegally. Generally the crisis in Spain contributes to low wages for Spanish workers as well, for example labour costs are one third of those in the Netherlands (Barcelona Field Studies Center 2014).

Working conditions in greenhouses are very hard especially in summer times when temperatures can reach 45°C and immigrants often have no access to health and education services. It’s mainly men working in the greenhouses leading to prostitution of women in the area. Furthermore tense social conditions and a lack of integration & labour regulation policy are leading to social conflicts in the region.

Sustainability, a quick wrap up

Almeria’s production system is not sustainable. It is facing an upcoming problem of its future water supply while Spain keeps on exporting virtual water at very low prices. Regarding Spain’s situation when it comes to water supply, studies predict even lower annual rainfalls due to climate change but current water prices tend not to meet the reality of its value. By exporting vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers which require a high water input Spain is exporting virtual (non-existent) water at a low artificial created price. The horticultural greenhouse production also depends on a lot of external inputs with long distance transportation.

Long distance transportation routes also increase CO2 emissions of the production system and the production system is creating lots of waste (plastic bags) and puts pressure on local ecosystems. Suffering from hard working conditions African immigrants are being forced to commit to cheap labour which leads to social conflicts in the area. On the one hand it is possible to argue that the production and growing of plants out of artificially created substrates could present a solution to the global problem of declining quality and quantity of soil for food production and therefore support global food security.

On the other hand a type of production like the one observed in Almeria still requires many external inputs to function and is energy and resource intensive, which leads to local farmers being dependent on external resources and prices. There is no doubt that horticulture greenhouse production contributed to regional economic development and employment during the last decades. But the question is who benefits from this development? And can it be socially and environmentally sustainable? We always have to keep in mind that low labour costs and water costs leading to cheap production are strong reasons for Almeria’s economic success and competitive advantage in Europe’s vegetable production.

By Anna Rosa Vollmann

Other sources: Fernando de de la Torre, Semillero Tecnobiplant, 12.03.2014.

Milagros Fernandez, Centro de Investigacion y Desarollo Horticola de la Mojonera (CIDH), 13.03.2014.

Wu, Charlene: Demand Spanish Greenhouses to Stop Ocean Pollution Iberia Nature.

A guide to the natural history of Spain: Greenhouses in Almeria.

Horti Daily (10.17.2013): greenhouse fever returns, more newer structures; Spain: Spectacular increase in sales of greenhouses in Almería

Pablo Campra, Monica Garcia, Yolanda Canton and Alicia Palacios-Orueta (2008): Surface temperature cooling trends and negative radiative forcing due to land use change toward greenhouse farming in southeastern Spain. In: Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres (1984–2012) Volume 113, Issue D18, 2.09.2008

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