The dark side of agri-capitalism

Part Two: Environmental Impacts

While Almeria has an annual rainfall of just over 200 mm, greenhouse production requires something equivalent to 800-1,000 mm of water. The shortfall in water supply has traditionally been overcome by sinking wells and tapping the water trapped in the local aquifer. Hundreds have been sunk – many illegally – causing the water table to drop. Not only has this adversely impacted on the wider region but ‘aquifer drawdown’ also tends to create a vacuum underground which is then filled by another water source nearby – the Mediterranean.

Sea water is, of course, saline (and the level of salinity in the Mediterranean itself is comparatively high) so the ingress of seawater underground, and then into the irrigation system itself, results in salinisation and, hence, the destruction of crops. This has led to some greenhouses falling into disuse with new ones being erected elsewhere, along with the sinking of new wells, to get round this problem, thus increasing the area under plastic in a way that mimics the pathology of a spreading cancer.

Technical fixes have been advanced to tackle this problem, including the establishment of several water de-salinisation plants but the water provided is 1.5–4 times more costly in energy terms than pumped water. Relying on the Mediterranean is just exchanging one finite resource for another (Melissa Cate Christ, The Scapegoat Journal, 2013).

Other technical fixes include water re-use (though this is not very suitable for young plants) and the development of soilless or hydroponic systems of growing crops, using a substrate like perlite, and computerised drip technology which also delivers chemical fertilisers to the plants. ‘Fertigation’, however, presents a problem with what to do with all the vegetable waste – over 700,000 tonnes per year (ibid) – much of which is just dumped, rather than recycled or composted, contributing to contamination of the environment. While such technologies have certainly improved the efficiency of water usage they have not really overcome the growing problem of falling water tables or, indeed, the leaching of chemicals into the environment.

Moreover, the close proximity of thousands of greenhouses creates ideal conditions for the spread of pests and diseases. The traditional response has been to blitz crops with chemical pesticides – although, interestingly, Almeria itself has become a world leader in Integrated Pest Management (IPM) involving more environmentally-friendly methods of pest control. This came about as a result of a 2006 Greenpeace report revealing high levels of pesticide residues in produce from the region. The bad publicity caused a drastic drop in sales and the chemical in question was blacklisted. Nevertheless, pesticides continue to be used with adverse health consequences for those working within the relatively closed environment of the greenhouses.

Another environmental problem is the industry’s ubiquitous use of plastic itself. Not only does the manufacture of plastic sheeting add to the industry’s environmental footprint in terms of the consumption of fossil fuels this requires (the same would be true of the high transportation costs of shifting agricultural products by truck to Northern Europe); there is also the problem of how to dispose of all that plastic once it has been used.

Plastic tarps have a relatively short lifespan under the blazing sun of Southern Spain. Though in recent years the authorities have set up collection points for used plastic, a lot of it – not just tarps but containers of all sorts – ends up being dumped along roadsides or in gullies or even burnt – presumably because it is more convenient or less costly than transporting it to the collection points where it has to be sorted. In 2018, the group, Ecologistas en Accion, released dramatic video footage of a local river, normally a dry barranco, absolutely choked with plastic detritus after a storm. Such rubbish makes its way to the sea where it can harm or kill marine life, including even sperm whales, or else breaks down over time into micro-plastic particles that enter the food chain.

Migrant Labour

The so-called ‘economic miracle’ that is Almeria’s greenhouses would not be possible but for the harsh exploitation of cheap labour. This is yet another externality, along with the environmental costs of production that tends to be left off the capitalist equation: the social costs of production. For Marx, these things were vitally interconnected:

‘All progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility’ (Capital, Vol 1).

When Almeria’s greenhouse sector began to develop back in the 1960s it relied mostly on family labour supplemented by locally-based seasonal labour. In the 1970s immigrant workers, chiefly from Morocco, began to arrive. Entire families would come to do the harvesting and then return to Morocco. Being paid less than the local workforce they soon replaced the latter as a source of seasonal labour.

In the 1980s, Moroccan labour was supplemented by workers from Sub-Saharan Africa which also signalled a shift from the organised annual too-ing and fro-ing between countries that had characterised the earlier migrations. Increasingly migrants tended to remain in the area, post-harvest, because of the greater logistical problems of migration in their case. Still later, from the 1990s onwards, this pool of migrant labour was joined by others – from Latin America and Eastern Europe (following the enlargement of the EU). Some of this labour, as in the case of Eastern Europe, was officially recruited in the country of origin but increasing use was made of illegal undocumented migrant labour, particularly from Africa. Recent developments in that continent (and elsewhere) have ensured a steady growth in this supply.

While Europe’s so-called refugee crises, peaking in 2015, initially focussed on refugees from the Middle East and their impact on point-of-entry countries like Italy and Greece, more recently attention has shifted to Spain which, according to a Reuters report, is emerging as a ‘new weak link’ in Fortress Europe’s efforts to stem the inflow of migrants (July 7, 2018). The numbers of asylum applicants arriving in Spain is currently rising sharply. This graphically illustrates how interconnected the world has become and subject to the dynamics of global capitalism. The economic forces that precipitate civil wars over mineral wealth in some distant African state are the self-same forces that condemn those who flee to a miserable existence in Almeria’s plastic hell.

Many of these are undocumented illegals; their very illegal status enabling employers to depress their wages to a bare minimum. Even those with legal contracts are little better off. Ironically, the ability of employers to hire large numbers of illegal workers, often with the collusion of the authorities, means that workers applying for a legal contract, supposedly granting them certain basic rights, have to pay a steep price for it. According to one source this can amount to several thousand euros (Network for the Promotion of Sustainable Consumption in European regions). Even then, there are ways and means for employers to get round legal requirements – for instance, registering workers for social insurance – simply by hiring them for less than the statutory minimum of 180 days per year. All the odds are stacked in favour of the employers and against the workers.

The wages these workers receive fall significantly below even the legal minimum. The norm is between 33 and 36 euros per day, though there have been cases reported of daily earnings falling well below even this derisory level – of 20 euros per day according to one report in the Guardian (7 February, 2011).

There are an estimated 100,000 migrants working and living in the greenhouses. Work conditions are atrocious. Temperatures in the greenhouses can rise to above 45 degrees Celsius, the toil is back-breaking and Health and Safety standards are poor. There is little protection against the chemicals the workers come into contact with or breathe in.

Given their abysmally low income, they cannot afford even a minimally acceptable level of accommodation. Some live in barrack-like squalor in semi-derelict cortijos with hazardous electrical connections and poor sanitary facilities for what is often, under the circumstances, an extortionate rent; others create constructions for themselves called chabolas made out of old pallets, plastic and cardboard erected amongst the greenhouses themselves. There tends to be a rigid segregation between migrants and locals (who live in agro-towns completely surrounded by the greenhouses) which creates a breeding ground for racism. Simmering tensions have in the past broken out into race riots as happened in the town of El Ejido in 2000.

Contradictions of greenhouse production

Ironically, those who harbour such racist sentiments are sometimes the very people who have prospered on the backs of the migrants. The direct employers, as stated, are largely small-scale family-based operators — an estimated 13,500 of them – who, over the course of several decades, have come to forge close dependent ties with an array of large-scale intermediaries such as banks, agribusinesses (providing seeds, irrigation technology, plastic sheeting etc.) and the supermarket chains. All of these want their slice of the pie and all have an interest in enlarging the size of that pie.

The result is that there is strong pressure on farmers to embrace technological innovations that enhance productivity. Output per hectare has indeed risen but at the cost of rising indebtedness to the banks to finance this technology. And therein lies the rub. For while innovation enables the operator to increase output it also leads to falling prices through increased productivity which then undermines the ability of these small operators to pay off their loans.

According to the aforementioned NPSCER report, operating costs can be between 30 and 40k euros per hectare, leaving many struggling to break even in stark contrast to the big supermarkets that bulk buy their produce. Such is the contradictory nature of the system we live under that plenty should come to be considered an economic curse.

The squeeze on profit margins, exacerbated by the small-scale nature of the greenhouse operators themselves has a further consequence – namely, that is likely to increase pressure on them to seek ways to reduce or externalise their costs of production. Certainly, as far as labour costs are concerned, the growing oversupply in relation to demand fuelled by the migrant crisis and augmented by the haemorrhage of jobs in construction following the 2008 property market crash, means the prospects of any real improvement in the circumstances of the greenhouse workers themselves seem bleak.

The same might be said of the environmental costs of greenhouse production. Despite efforts by the industry to clean up its act, notably with the adoption of IPM technology, to an extent this is just another example of ‘greenwashing’ to allay the concerns of increasingly health conscious customers in Northern Europe. It distracts from the more fundamental issues affecting the region – above all, that of falling water tables and future water supplies in the context of global climate change. Rainfall in the region has decreased by 18 percent since the 1960s and water shortages are projected to grow.

A final irony is that the very success that the Almeria greenhouse complex had achieved as an exemplar of high-tech commercialised agriculture has encouraged others to copy it. Though its energy costs are markedly less than in Northern Europe where greenhouses have to be heated, this advantage falls away in other parts of the Mediterranean basin such as Turkey or Morocco. Here the same model of greenhouse production is being aggressively pushed and labour costs are, if anything, even lower. With international competition heating up, this will likely add to the already relentless pressure to reduce or further externalise costs.

In so many ways, this little corner of the world represents a microcosm of global capitalism, a mirror on the environmentally and socially destructive forces the system unleashes in its pursuit of profit at any price.