As you make your way south from the darkly brooding Granada in Spain’s Andalusia region, the road pitches through a truly delightful part of the world. With blossom trees dotting the hillsides and a distant whiff of sea-air, it’s easy to get caught up in the romance of this intensely passionate, yet incredibly relaxed region of Spain. With the Mediterranean quickly approaching, the mind wanders, painting a delightful image of untouched beaches and small Andalusian white-washed towns. What actually appears, couldn’t be more different.
At first, they appear like a mirage. White sheets blotting out the odd patch of landscape, but steadily the numbers increase until they are all around you. These are not sheets, this is Europe’s largest concentration of plastic greenhouses – and they cover a mind-boggling amount of land.
First started in 1963, the greenhouses have spread quickly, now encompassing an area measuring roughly 40,000 hectares (98,000 acres) – that’s about two-thirds the size of the entire city of Chicago. In some places, they stretch, quite literally, as far as the eye can see, and the shimmering white expanse is even visible from space.
In terms of intensive farming, they are spectacularly successful, providing the continent with between 40 and 50% of its fruit and vegetables, and earning the area the nickname, ‘the garden of Europe’. The quantity of produce varies considerably depending on which source you look at, but is generally between 2.5 and 3.5 million tons each year, worth anywhere between €1.2 and €3 billion ($1.4 – $3.5 billion) – this is big business.
In terms of environmental preservation the list of problems is steadily expanding and with murky stories of slave-labour type conditions for the mostly immigrant workforce inside the plastic, this has become a hugely controversial topic, both in Spain and across Europe.
Europe’s Fruit and Vegetables
The idea of vast ugly greenhouses destroying the beautiful natural landscape and hellish conditions for the workers inside is probably enough to turn most people off already.
However – and this is a big however – it’s perfectly conceivable that places like this wouldn’t even exist if it were not for our insatiable desire for cheap fruit and vegetables all year round. Walking through a supermarket in a rich European country, it’s likely you won’t pay the slightest attention to the mounds of different produce available throughout the year. And not only that, it’s cheap – really cheap – perhaps even a little too cheap. But more on that later.
We’re starting with this point because it’s important to understand exactly why the greenhouses in Almeria exist. They are spectacularly ugly, probably contaminating the ground around them and the site of highly dubious employment practices, but fruit and vegetables consumers in western Europe, have to take part of the responsibility. The greenhouses around the Almeria produce roughly 65 per cent of the tomatoes, 80 per cent of the cucumbers and 94 per cent of the eggplants sold in Europe. The chances are you are buying produce from these greenhouses without even realising it.
Much has changed in Spain since the swinging sixties. First of all, they weren’t quite as swinging as other parts of Europe or in North America. Francisco Franco, who holds the questionable distinction of being Europe’s only fascist dictator who actually succeeded, retained an iron grip on the country from the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, until his death in 1975.
While other parts of Europe barrelled forward after World War II, Spain did not. Thanks to a deep suspicion of liberal economics the nation faced bankruptcy during the 1950s. In 1959, broad reform began – within the economy but certainly not politically or ideologically. This led to what has become known as the ‘Spanish Miracle’ – a period between 1959 and 1974 when the economy boomed across the country. In terms of economic growth, only Japan outdid Spain during this time.
And it was during the Spanish Miracle that we saw our first greenhouse appear in the Almeria area in 1963.
The word greenhouse probably brings images of small glass contraptions placed somewhere at the bottom of a garden. What first appeared in the 1960s was entirely different – as are the modern greenhouses, but we’ll get to that later in the video.
Polythene greenhouses were first used on the Canary Islands and in Catalonia as a replacement for the more expensive glass versions, with great success. The transparent material proved excellent at retaining heat and humidity, enabling farmers to double or even triple production because the plants inside didn’t need to rely on the natural cycle outside.
These early greenhouses were incredibly basic, with wooden posts or a simple metal structure beneath and the polythene stretched across the top. At first, it was simply small farm holdings popping up sporadically throughout the area, but by the 1980s, things were really picking up steam.
This had always been a dry, barren area with as little as 20cm (7.8 inches) of rainfall each year. The landscape was such that it even managed to double as the American West with numerous Spaghetti Westerns shot there, including, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Fistful of Dollars. Outside of the western genre, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Lawrence of Arabia also used the parched landscape as a cinematic backdrop. But traditionally, this was an area of few employment possibilities.
The expansive process of intensive farming also began in the 1980s. As more farmers and large businesses flocked to the area, new methods of farming were needed to satisfy the demand that was already sky-rocketing.
This included importing soil from other more fertile parts of Spain as well as the eventual introduction of large-scale hydroponic systems which could drip water and fertiliser into the plants at a steady rate. It has become increasingly common for plants to not even grow in the soil beneath the greenhouses. Instead, huge numbers of grow bags were installed and currently, about 90% of the produce grown there is done so in an artificial soil known as Enarenado composed of clay, manure and sand.
The greenhouses in Almeria began to take on an entirely more industrial feel and were quickly pumping out fruit and vegetables at breathtaking speed. When Spain joined the EU in 1986, they were able to sell goods around the continent tariff-free. What had once been a deeply impoverished region, was now booming.
But unsurprisingly this is where the problems really began.
One of the biggest criticisms consistently levelled at the greenhouse complex for the past twenty years has been the treatment of those within this vast plastic jungle. While the majority of the businesses are Spanish owned, you would do well to find any Spanish citizens toiling away in temperatures that can reach 45C (113F).
The overwhelming majority of those working in the greenhouses are immigrants – some with the legal right to work, some without, most coming from Africa or Eastern Europe. Now, first of all, there are no doubt plenty of business owners across the area that treat and pay their workers fairly. But those are not the kinds of stories that tend to make the news. It’s not uncommon to see groups of people waiting at the edge of towns in the hope that somebody is looking for some extra work. They generally receive between €32 and €40 ($36-$45) a day, lower than the national minimum wage of €55, and it has become increasingly common for over-time to simply disappear from the final paycheck. Even those who have the right to work in Spain will often not speak up out in fear of retribution. It’s impossible to know the true number of those working within the greenhouses, but a conservative estimate would be at least 100,000.
Conditions within the greenhouses can be difficult to gauge and vary considerably, but it’s generally believed that workers are exposed to harmful pesticides regularly. In 2019, a twenty-seven-year-old Moroccon man working in the greenhouses died after complaining of a stomach ache for a week. An autopsy confirmed the cause of death as poisoning, with the investigation still ongoing.
And the difficulties for these workers continue even after they leave work. Many live in shanty towns dotted around the area, some in appalling conditions. In February 2019, a fire from a gas canister burned down half of one such area, leaving 120 workers homeless. What has been re-built resembles a refugee camp, with free-standing structures, loose-plastic, and often no running water. It is a truly bleak setting and one that should probably stick in our minds the next time we trawl for bargain-basement fruit.
Problems Further Up the Chain
If you speak to the owners in the area, it’s clear where they believe the problem lies – with the large multinational corporations who buy the produce. With profit margins increasingly squeezed most agree that it’s inevitable that some farmers begin cutting corners.
The cost of everything from fertilizer to seeds, from plastic to hydroponic systems has gone up over the years – that is except for the price of produce, which has fallen. While large supermarket chains across Europe are recording massive profits, things are getting harder and harder towards the bottom – and appalling for those picking the produce.
The local government has consistently maintained that employment standards are met within the greenhouses, however, the catalogue of negative news stories over the years tells quite a different story. Whether this is simply just a few bad owners or indicative of a much larger problem, it’s not entirely clear. But driving through the greenhouse area it’s difficult to get a sense that this is how things should be done.
The Cost of Cheap Produce
Our desire for cheap fruit and vegetables throughout the year has created an uncomfortable problem that many choose to ignore. While the greenhouses in the south of Spain might be the largest such example, they are by no means the only.
These greenhouses can pump out produce at a staggering rate and no doubt it has made a good number of people incredibly rich, but the implications of it all are stark. It’s thought around 5,200 tons of chemical waste is dumped in the area, or the Mediterranean each year. This is a slow-moving calamity that has now been in the public eye for at least twenty years, but it might be another 20 before we know the full extent.
It’s believed that around 30,000 tons of plastic waste is created each year, with much of it left to slowly decompose in large pits. Water sources have become blocked, while some have even taken to burning the plastic sheeting and so releasing toxic fumes. Then there’s the issue of working-conditions within the farms, which come with exposure to pesticides which will likely take years to show their full effects.
But actually, amid this ugly scene, there is some good news. Many farms in the area use sophisticated water recycling systems which calculate exactly how much water is required per plant. This has meant that despite being home to one of the most intensive farming operations on the planet, Almeria uses significantly less water per capita than most other regions in Spain.
In a slightly quirky turn of events, the University of Almeria have found that the vast ocean of plastic is reflecting so much heat into the sky, it’s actually cooling the province. Temperatures around Spain have been climbing steadily for decades now, but in Almeria, the temperature has dropped by an average of 0.3 C every decade – which is quite extraordinary.
As I said at the start of the video, it’s easy to view the greenhouses as a monstrous stain on the Almeria landscape, but the truth is they are providing a steady supply for our ravenous demand. We tend to look upon factories or manufacturing centres as dirty, ugly places that ruin the surrounding area, but as long as we consume or use what comes from them, it’s difficult to take the high road.
There are a huge amount of negatives, but also some positives that have come out of the great sea of plastic in Southern Spain. It has created its own economic miracle in an area with little to no financial value before it all began. The way technology has been harnessed to produce such a staggering amount of produce is truly astonishing. Food production is set to be a huge issue in the future, and if we continue in the same way, it’s likely we will start needing many more areas like this.
But the negatives are substantial. The conditions that many work under are far from what we expect in a first world country and the sprawling slums that have appeared near the greenhouses are shocking to witness. The effect on the environment will take some time to fully become clear but with vast amounts of plastic waste and decades of large quantities of pesticides, the future isn’t exactly bright for this patch of Spain. While many farmers have attempted to modernise and use methods as ecologically sound as possible, it may not be enough in the long run.
The vast greenhouses in Almeria have shown us what can be possible with intensive farming – and it is impressive. But it’s equally clear that such practices come with a high cost. The question is, how much is our cheap supermarket produce really worth to us?