Intensive agriculture in plastic greenhouses by the sea
Almeria, Spain 2005
Most affluent consumers in the U.S. and Europe have grown accustomed to eating fresh salads and vegetables all year round. In the U.S. this is made possible by the sunny climates of California and Florida, helped out by vast publicly subsidized irrigation systems, similarly subsidized road systems, and underpaid, intermittently criminalized migrant labor.
The colder countries of Europe now source their salads from southern Spain. In less than a quarter century this region has been transformed from an arid, destitute coastline to a dense patchwork of industrial agriculture and tourism.
The lettuces, herbs, spinach, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and other warm season products are cultivated in plastic greenhouses where the environment can be maximally controlled. Since the indigenous soil is unusable for such crops, a substrate of sand, rock wool, manure, and topsoil is trucked in to bed the horticulture inside the greenhouses. After 2-3 years of constant growing cycles using intensive pesticides, fungicides and fertilizer, this imported soil too is deemed useless. It is bulldozed into dumps and replaced.
There has never been much water in this region but industrial agriculture is a water intensive enterprise. The local groundwater is contaminated with the nitrates and chemicals that follow industrial agriculture everywhere, and here also seawater is breaching the water table as it is lowered by over-extraction. Currently water is piped in from outside the region in vast aqueducts. A 22 billion euro plan would reroute part of the Ebro River from the north to supply the salads and tourists of the south. So far it has met with intense public objection.
For centuries the region only supported cultivation of olives, almonds, sheep and goats. Even as the global market has found more convenient and cheaper sources for these things, the horticulture boom has created unprecedented wealth. Land once almost worthless is now pegged corner to corner with the relatively cheap infrastructure of plastic tenting stretched over wooden or metal frames. The largest share of the investment is inside in the form of expensive computerized irrigation systems that mix doses of pesticide and fertilizer with the water on precise timers. Considerable investment is also demanded by the patented seeds yielding the varieties mega supermarkets insist on. Greenhouse conditions are a breeding ground for pests so growers follow the dosing regimens sold by the seed and input companies to protect their investment.
Working inside the plastic is hot and toxic. Who does this work? It’s almost exclusively the field of immigrants, a large portion of them Africans without documentation who risk their lives to cross the straits between the Spanish and Moroccan coasts. Typically the sudden influx of a large population of outsiders produces tensions with locals; Almeria and the Costa del Sol are no different. Although the low wages, job insecurity and lethal working conditions are all part of what has made the region so rich so fast, and even though only an oversupply of desperately poor workers could sustain such conditions, these workers are resented as outsiders.