When we first started growing food what we could grow was controlled by natural factors. However, as technology advances we are capable of growing food in ways and places that we couldn’t before.
One place where this happens in on the Costa Del Sol on the South Coast of Spain. In Almeria, the landscape is dramatic and unforgiving. It has desert scrub plants, and very dry soils. It is one of the driest parts of Europe (the total annual rainfall is only 228mm) but has become the site of an agricultural revolution. Millions of tons of vegetables are exported to other European countries and other parts of the world each year.
A huge number of greenhouses, made mainly of polythene and plastic, are found 30 km southwest of the city of Almería in southern Spain.
It is estimated that there are 40,000 hectares of greenhouses producing over 2.7 million tonnes of produce each year. This creates over €1.2 billion in economic activity.
In the 1950s any plants the farmers planted were simply blown down by the wind. However, they put up plastic sheeting on poles to stop the wind damaging their plants. They then realised that this had a secondary benefit, it helped their plants ripen earlier. Protecting crops meant that farmers could make the barren landscape fertile with the added bonus of a long extended growing season. This was the start of an amazing transformation. The farmers saw the chance to turn the area into a massive market garden using enormous greenhouses. There are greenhouses with over a ¼ million kilos of tomatoes (including the Angel tomato), and nature is taking a back seat. The plants are grown under cover, but also not in soil but using a system of hydroponics. Here, the plants are grown without soil! They grow in grow bags with what is effectively loft insulation with a mix of water and nutrients to avoid contamination from the ground. The water/nutrient solution is fed into the base of the plants via water pipes with small holes in called irrigation tubes.
This is an industrial way of growing crops and can grow 2 entire crops a year. The whole area contains the largest concentration of greenhouses in the world. A ¼ of all of those tomatoes come to the UK. Londoners eat over ½ a million tonnes of fruit and veg a year, enough to fill Trafalgar Square half way to the top of Nelson’s column!
Advantages and disadvantages
There are many advantages to this style of farming. The area produces relatively cheap fresh fruit and vegetables for people all year round. Indeed, plants can be grown outside of their normal growing season, increasing the variety of diet for people throughout the year.
The Spanish Government and EU offered support through infrastructure, technical advice and sources of funding. There are also large amounts of cheap temporary labour available to help in the farming. Many migrants come from Eastern Europe and North Africa. The fruit and vegetables also need packing, and this creates extra jobs. There are factories that produce the necessary plastic and also recycle it. This has created a secondary industry and extra jobs. Many agribusinesses have located in the area providing high quality R&D jobs. Especially in the Almeria Agribusiness cluster.
In addition to this, hydroponic growing techniques have helped to save on soil and resources and boost harvests. Hydroponics also mean that the plants only get the nutrients they need via the drip hoses, so there is less waste. Less water is used due to the use of drip hose irrigation, and greenhouses limit evaporation losses. The area also has the Bajo Almanzora desalinisation plant, which is helping to provide freshwater to the region. The year round warm temperatures help to cut energy costs. Finally, strict EU rules on quality have helped cut chemical use and raise the standards of production.
However, this large scale agriculture is controversial and has lots of critics. This is because there are negatives to this type of farming. The immigrant labour force is paid very low wages and they live in poor conditions for example. Some of the immigrants are from North Africa and work illegally in Spain, this raises tensions in the region. There are many environmental impacts, the plastic used has badly damaged local ecosystems and the environment. Waste plastic is often burnt and this is toxic and hazardous to human health. The greenhouses often use pesticides to protect the crops from pests, these increase health risks for people working there and have been proven to cause some cancers. Large amounts of litter have been left in the area including containers used for chemicals and plastic sheeting. Local riverbeds have been blocked up, there are fears that these could break and cause catastrophic flooding during intense rainstorms in this part of Spain. Despite efforts to limit water use the farming has put a strain on local water sources despite the use of desalinised sea water. Natural underground aquifers are drying up. The greenhouses even cool the local area by reflecting sunlight back out into the atmosphere!