Should we be eating salads in winter?

In most of Europe these days, year-round we can buy almost any fruit or vegetable. This is an excellent source of nutrition in the colder months, but means our food travels a substantial distance in order for us to benefit from it. Most produce arrives from Almería in southern Spain, known as ‘the salad bowl of Europe’, where irrigated, plastic greenhouses cover over 80,000 acres, over 125 sq. miles. Is this a sustainable way to grow our food though?

See this illustration showing the change of land use from 1974 to 2004 (from rural to the white, plastic, greenhouse, agricultural industry.


Almería is the driest place in Europe, with an average annual rainfall of 200mm and 3050 hours of sunlight. Until recently, it was the poorest province in Spain, but greenhouse agriculture has literally turned water into gold since it’s horticultural revolution in the last four decades. Farmers here discovered that this climate enabled all year fruit and vegetable production in greenhouses. Northern Europe supports this increasing demand for out-of-season vegetables. The distance from Almeria to London is 2,250km or a 22- hour drive. This industry is currently worth 2 billion euros/year to Spain, according to José Ángel Aznar, professor of applied economics at the University of Almeria.

UK winter produce could be grown locally, using heated greenhouses, but this is not always sustainable. There are structures where we can grow food all year without using any extra heat, such as earthships. Large food growing areas inside the house are part of the design and therefore exclude all transport aspects. We can survive without salads in winter, importing produce on this scale is a new industry. Our eating habits have changed substantially in the past century.

Farming in Almería is an alternative, but not predominately an organic venture. Terraces are dug out with heavy machinery on mountainsides and in dry riverbeds, and there are subsidence risks. Soil is worn out by lack of introduction of organic material and needs replacing periodically. Alternatively hydroponic systems that use pesticides and fertilisers are used. Soil-free farming has generated prosperit y, and problems. Professor Nicolás Olea from San Cecilio hospital in Granada has found there are increased risks with pesticides, leading to breast cancer and testicular issues.

Water arrives by abstraction of ground water due to the low and irregular rainfall, which leads to salt-water intrusion and depleted aquifers. Desalination plants are increasing. Evaporation is fast here. Drip technology is more economical and profitable, but water needs are increasing so more sources must be found. Degradation of water quality caused by human choices and activities is becoming clear.

Water demands from agriculture are in conflict with tourism and development. These last four decades have also seen tourism grow substantially resulting in a building boom. Recently, natural park land has been used for agriculture. Whilst white Europeans relax on the beaches, illegal immigrants, desperate to earn any money, are shooed away by police behind the greenhouses. They are expected to stay hidden in their shelters made from old pallets and discarded greenhouse plastic. Water for consumption and sanitation needs collecting, meaning old pesticide containers are sometimes the only option for this. Less irrigation means more unemployment.

Profits rely on exploitation of migrant workers. In 2002, African immigrants from the Canary Islands were flown to Madrid, bused to San Isidro, Almería, and dumped in the town square. Local nuns took care of them then; their work continues today with increasing desperation. Today, survivors of expensive journeys into Europe from Africa, traumatised illegal immigrants, face poor living conditions. Work, in temperatures reaching 40 – 50 celsius, is hard to find and sporadic. Earnings are around 10-20€ a day. Reports of dangerous conflict when it comes to payday are also circulating. The recent economic crisis has meant locals and Eastern Europeans now also compete for these illegal jobs. According to Juan Carlos Checa, a researcher in social anthropology
from the University of Almería, there were 80-90,000 migrant workers in the area in 2010. Racial tensions increase and there is little integration.

An estimated 88,000 tons of plastic waste are generated in the area each year from old greenhouse material and chemical containers. Recycling facilities and incentives are underused. As a result, much is dumped meaning that wildlife is under threat, see Fig 3. A sperm whale washed up on the local beach and was found to have 17kg of plastic debris inside it, which caused its death.

Some signs of organic agriculture are appearing. Tabo Export, based in the city of Almería, who ship produce to the UK, Holland and Germany have just started an organic product list. Solid Organic Link, a Dutch company in Granada, ship organic produce exclusively. ‘El Ejido Agricultura 08’ and Hortidaily claim that the industry is already sustainable.

The greenhouses now cover a huge area of land, forming a white, shimmering blanket similar to snow. They now appear to be reflecting enough sunshine to be lowering the temperature of the region. Heat rising from the greenhouses can give a paraglider lift. The plastic covers natural drains and puts pressure on gullies and riverbeds, but ornithological diversity has been stimulated by this land degradation.

Is the agricultural industry in Almería sustainable, in regard to the pollution it’s creating, the tension over water extraction and distribution, the health issues that are being exposed, the wildlife that is being affected and the harsh working conditions? It seems that this industry may be reaching its tipping point, but what will give first, and when? The Spanish government may take action over some of these issues, but it is likely in the deep, economic crisis that the industry is too valuable to risk rocking the boat. Locals could suffer greatly before this happens, in regards to human health and the state of the land, but may turn a blind eye in the short term while the financial benefits are good. European legislation could intervene as it appears employment and environmental laws are being broken. Almería agriculture may become a global issue, with wildlife now perishing on the shorelines.

So, should we be eating salads in winter?
By Lizzie Wynn

Please support ‘Salad workers of Almeria’ – a non profit project to bring basic sanitation, compost toilets and assistance to the thousands of illegal immigrants working in poor conditions in the greenhouses.

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