Europe’s Strawberry War Heats Up As Germany Sends Cross-Party Delegation to Spain

Strawberry fields forever? Maybe not in water-starved south-eastern Spain.

Germany’s Bundestag sent a cross-party delegation to Spain this week to investigate a controversial proposed irrigation law in the southern region of Andalusia. The law has already caused friction between Spain’s central government, majority controlled by the nominally left-wing Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), and Andalusia’s Junta, controlled by a coalition of the conservative Popular Party and far-right VOX. The Junta’s proposed law will regularise nearly 1,900 hectares of berry farmland currently irrigated by illegal wells, some of them in the endangered Doñana national park, one of Europe’s largest wildlife sanctuaries and a UNESCO world heritage site.

“For Doñana it would be a disaster,” said Juanjo Carmona of the local branch of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF).

File:Vista de las marismas del Parque Doñana.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

A photo of the (now much depleted) wetlands of Doñana National Park taken by Gabriela Coronado Hernández in 2017.

The park’s diverse ecosystem of marshes, lagoons, pine forests and dunes stretches across 122,000 hectares — almost the size of London. It lies on the migratory route of millions of birds and is home to many rare species such as the Iberian lynx. But its iconic wetlands are rapidly drying up.

A Fruity Powerhouse

Doñana is nestled on the southern flank of Huelva province, which is the powerhouse of Europe’s berry industry. After switching from crops such as corn and nuts to red fruits in the 1970s and ’80s, it now produces over 90% of Spain’s strawberries, roughly 30% of the EU’s and is a major source of other red fruits. But growing these fruits on such a scale requires huge reserves of sunlight (not a problem) and water (a much more serious problem).

Spain is suffering one of its worst droughts of recent years. In March and April, the country received just 36% and 22% of average rainfall respectfully, and Andalusia, like all of Spain’s Mediterranean coastal regions, has been particularly hard hit. The reservoirs of the Guadalquivir basin, Andalusia’s longest river, are at just 23% of capacity; those of the Guadiana, are at 31.93%, and the Segura, 35%.

It is against this backdrop of acute drought and water scarcity that Andalusia’s regional government has proposed a new irrigation law to expand the irrigable land in the region. The law has sparked alarm in Brussels, which has threatened Spain with financial penalties over the proposed plan. UNESCO is also concerned, having repeatedly warned of the potentially dire consequences of over-exploitation of the region’s aquifer. In a statement last week, the UN body said the proposed measures “could threaten the very reasons for the recognition of Doñana National Park as a UNESCO World Heritage site.”

This past week, representatives of the Environment Commission of the German Parliament have been in Madrid to meet with government officials, business groups and environmental organisations. They were supposed to visit Huelva and other parts of Andalusia but pulled out at the last minute, claiming they did not want to interfere in Spain’s upcoming general election. But perhaps the decision also had something to do with to the hostile reception that probably awaited them.

The ostensible purpose of the visit was to address issues related to “water scarcity and consumer protection,” according to the press release from the lower house of the German Parliament. The statement notes that the drought in Spain could affect German consumers, given that “nearly 27% of fresh fruit and vegetables [consumed in Germany] comes from Spain”.

Boycott versus Counter-Boycott

The visit follows a petition by German environmental association Compact calling on German supermarkets to stop selling imported berries grown near the endangered wildlife sanctuary.  The campaign warns that by growing cheap strawberries for Germany and other northern European countries, Spain risks destroying one of its most important natural habitats. And that trend could get worse after right-wing parties swept the board in the recent local and regional elections.

“Especially following the Popular Party’s electoral success in the regional and local elections last weekend, there is a danger that water theft will now become officially permitted,” the association said. More than 140,000 citizens have so far signed the petition, reports Spanish news agency EFE. Germany is the biggest importer of Spanish strawberries, accounting for roughly one-third of all purchases, with the UK a close second (25%).

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Ecological Transition Minister Teresa Ribera have backed the boycott while insisting they support all legal farmers that are reeling from the “reputational damage” being wrought by the Junta’s proposed irrigation law. According to some reports, the boycott campaign has already had an impact on the German high street. Aldi announced in a press release last week:

“We are going to work only with those producers who, if located in areas classified as water-stressed, show that they make reasonable and sustainable use of irrigation water… We require our suppliers, as well as their producers, to meet our standards and all our fresh products –including strawberries — are subject to mandatory certification requirements.”

This statement quickly triggered threats of a counter-boycott from Spanish businesses and consumers. Aldi, which has a sizeable presence in the Spanish market, began furiously backpedalling. In a new statement on Monday it insisted that “most” of the strawberries it sells in its supermarkets are from Huelva and that all of them are of Spanish origin. Lidl, another German grocery chain with a large market share in Spain, has also tried to distance itself from the boycott campaign, announcing in a press release that “it strive[s] to maintain long-term relationships” with its suppliers and, therefore, “will continue working with Huelva’s strawberry producers in the future.”

Ulterior Motive?

Some Spanish right-wing media have published allegations that German businesses and retailers have an ulterior motive for boycotting Spanish strawberries: to prioritise the sale of Germany’s strawberries. As one young farmer from Huelva said, if the main concern is the widespread cultivation of strawberries in water-stressed regions, why aren’t German consumers and environmentalists also calling for the boycott of Moroccan strawberries?

I can neither confirm nor disprove these allegations and invite reader input on the matter, particularly from Spain and Germany. It is true that German strawberries have little chance of competing with their Spanish counterparts — at least on price. In fact, strawberries from Huelva often sell at lower prices in Germany than in Spain due to the long-term contracts German supermarkets sign with Spanish wholesalers. And it does seem that some German retailers have been favouring local produce. According to the Spanish news website El Debate, Aldi Süd released a statement a month ago announcing it was throwing its weight behind local strawberry growers:

“As long as there are regional or German strawberries available, they will be the only ones we buy during the season,” explains Erik Döbele , Managing Director of Domestic Purchasing and Services at Aldi Süd, adding: “For our growers, this is a decision that sends a sign”.

Worker Abuses

Back in Huelva, farmers are worried about the threat that both water scarcity and the consumer boycott in Germany could pose to their livelihood. Absent a well-honed national strategy to manage and conserve the country’s increasingly tight water supplies — something that has been sorely lacking for decades — the viability of Spain’s huge agri-food sector will grow increasingly tenuous. That would be particularly bad news for Huelva. According to the Association of Producers and Exporters of Huelva, the cultivation of strawberries and red fruits accounts for around 11.3% of the province’s GDP, and employs around 100,000 people directly and around 60,000 indirectly.

Huelva already has one of the highest unemployment rates in Spain, of just over 21%, so any job losses will be hard felt. That said, around half of the agricultural workforce consists of migrant workers, mainly from North and Sub-Saharan Africa. And their working and living conditions leave much to be desired. In some cases they are not even provided with accommodation. Shunned by landlords in neighbouring villages, they have little choice but to build makeshift shelters, which rapidly mushroom into shanty towns that have no access to running water or electricity.

As I reported in a 2020 article for WOLF STREET, the living conditions on some farms are so deplorable they have been likened to modern-day slavery. During a visit to Huelva in February of that year, Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur for severe poverty, said: “Here there are places much worse than a refugee camp, without running water or electricity.”

Alston’s words should have served as a wake-up call for local and central government as well as farmers and retailers, but in the end precious little has been done. Many strawberry pickers continue to receive less than the minimum wage and often work overtime without pay (as, in fact, do many Spanish workers), says a new report from the organisation Ethical Consumer. Some workers complain of having up to three days’ pay docked if they do not satisfy employers’ demands, of being barred from using the toilet, and of having their wages or passports withheld to keep them working.

Meanwhile, the battle lines are being drawn in Europe, not just over strawberries but over the future of agriculture as a whole. Many conservative lawmakers in the European Parliament are taking up the cause of Spanish farmers — part of a broader backlash against environmental regulations affecting agriculture that recently saw a farmers’ protest party win the largest number of seats in the Dutch Senate. One thing that is increasingly clear is that water rights, use and management are rapidly rising up the political agenda.

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  1. Ignacio

    This is sad an much of what is said there is something that I have read before. There are environmentalist groups in Spain which have been for long denouncing water stealing and overconsumption in the region for strawberry production. I have signed lots of petitions to no avail. An industry with ramifications in places in Northern Spain (Segovia) and in California. All this aggravated by the drought. This is a case in which there might be regional revolt as a lot of income in Huelva depends on the strawberry. Unfortunately I haven’t been following this closely enough to add anything interesting. Worryingly there are other endangered aquifers that affect natural environments, like Las Tablas de Daimiel, though these are not as well known and important as Doñana National Park.
    Le Monde Diplomatique recently published a dossier on the water issue on France and Spain I have yet nort read it.

  2. Monosynapsis

    Good reporting Nick ! Spain is via strawberries actually a net water exporter to Germany, yay market logics!

    3 observations (being both moroccan and german):

    1. it was in Norway and Sweden that I’ve eaten the best strawberries. Red, juicy, sweet and fragrant. Makes sense considering that these are boreal fruits (nuts). Obviously the harvest is limited to just a few weeks a year as opposed to the mass produce from the south – which are hard, watery and tasteless but available almost 8 months a year.

    2. from a Moroccan perspective, the situation is even worse. Along with the epidemiological spread of golf courses during the last decennia which makes one wonder wether golfing has become a national sport in Morocco, the strawberryfields impose an enormous toll on the local aquifers. I have no numbers on hand, but wherever one goes in the agricultural plains there the stories of whole olive or almond orchards withering next to the strawberyplantations established by big ag abound. Guess the plan is back to dates and camel milk for us.

    3. in german supermarkets price is king. Culturally the german mainstream strongly favours quantity over quality with a minority of ‘foodies’ and/or ecological minded elites wealthy enough to buy local. Also most germans into hobby gardening grow their own strawberries (quite common out of the urban zones). This will probably become (again) more widespread due to the now rapidly shrinking buying power.

    Thank you for also highlighting the abject working conditions in Huelva, it is truly modern day slavery.

  3. JohnA

    The saddest aspect is that the very best strawberries are local strawberries, bought and eaten when very fresh and picked when ripe. You get Spanish strawberries in England in the winter that are a waste of money, but in Spain in early spring they are beautiful. As Monosynapsis says, jordgubbar and jordbaer are fantastic in Sweden and Norway, but another very short season. I have just come back to England from France where the strawberries have been delicious but coming to an end now. I bought local ones here in Kent south England today along with local asparagus. Delicious.
    A short season but all the more reason to gorge and then forget for another 10-11 months.
    Eat local, eat seasonal is the only way forward. Else madness.

    1. Ignacio

      The strawberries grown in Huelva have their origin in California and their main characteristic is that they are gigantic though with little flavour. This and a relatively long post-harvest duration which make them ideal for large scale commercialization and reaching countries like Germany. The seedlings are produced (or at least they were a few years ago) in California, transported to Segovia or Avila to be planted during early winter because cold weather is a prerequisite for flowering. Then transferred to Huelva for production in late winter.

      1. JohnA

        There is a variety in England called Elsanta that appears to be ubiquitous in supermarkets. It was quite possibly a good variety originally, but these days it is grown for size and shelf life and is generally hard and tasteless.
        I have seen Californian strawberries on supermarket shelves in England during the local strawberry season. Absolutely bonkers.
        Most Spanish fruit and vegetables sold in England seem to come from Murcia region.

  4. OIFVet

    Eating from my own strawberry patch right now, thank you very much. Can’t quite consume them all, so I’ve made compote and jams. Yes, strawberry season here is coming to an end very soon, but the raspberries have just begun to ripen ;)

  5. Cristobal

    This post is a little late. The germans have decided not to come due to upcoming elections. In any case, just more hand wringing as the governnent (PSOE in Madrid) could drastically curtail the illegal wells if they wanted. Political issue.

    1. Ignacio

      As easy as that. They just have to follow well established state laws. If these are not being applied is only for political reasons.

  6. Cristobal

    Re Ignacio : All true. The “protected áreas” that restrict wells are very complicated so I may be wrong, but shutting down the illegal wells would not shut down the industry since the illegal wells are only in a small part of the growing área. It is political. Cheaper Morrocan ag exports to the EU are eating Spanish farmers’ lunch, so the maltreatment of the workers may be turn about. The EU, like the US, does not protect farmers’ from other countries with lower labor and environmental standards.

    1. Monosynapsis

      At the end my fellow andalusians are welcome to feast on cactus figs and dates with us maghrebians as this will probably be the only fruits our children may grow, an ecocidal re-reconquista from the desert south engineered by the marvelous neoliberal machine… and there will be tales of vast strawberryfields lost somewhere in the mists of legend, akind to the wondrous gardens of AlHambra past.

  7. The Rev Kev

    You would think that this would be an issue where the Greens in Germany would step forward and make their feelings known as, you know, its all about the ecology and Germany is buying those strawberries right now. But perhaps they have other things on their mind at the moment. The Green’s Annalena Baerbock is in Brazil right now but told them that ‘many people here are more concerned with the price of beans and rice than (the Ukraine).’ Well, yeah. But I wonder if people in Germany might do their own boycott of strawberries as they are not a staple food but more a luxury item. Same way there was a consumer boycott of tuna back in the 80s to stop fishing boats killing dolphins. That could work.

    1. Monosynapsis

      Exactly, the greens in Germany are busy with exorbitant high tech fantasies for the rich and the Grand Ideological Plan to impose ‘values’ on the rest of the world: note that the ‘Collective West’ is now unanimously called ‘Wertewesten’ meaning ‘Valuewest’ in the german MSM.

      No time for insignificant desertification problems in the mediterranean due to Aldi & LIDL… no time for anything in fact except the G I P and greenish SciFi hallucinations.

  8. KLG

    Great post, Nick! People just need to eat in season and then eat the jellies, jams, compotes, and canned or frozen vegetables out of season. What a concept! But it was not that long ago – pre-World War II – that we all did just that. I remember a passage in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver in which she remarked that something so out of season seemed unusual to have for dinner. She asked her host, “Where did you get that?” The answer was, “Zabar’s, they have everything.” I paraphrase since that was at least 15 years ago, but that is precisely the problem. Well, one of several thousand problems, anyway.

    Of course, as the climate warms, what will grow in season? People seem to think that warmer temperatures and more carbon dioxide are just what plants want. Not exactly, but I will leave the details to genuine botanists. The world will be a lot smaller for our grandchildren. If they can survive and thrive, it will be a better place for them, too. Big “if”…

  9. Isla White

    Just over the border in Portugal the same dispute; but what is striking is the ‘local protection’ given by the land owners to the ‘slave’ gangmasters ….one such example being discussed below. A Romanian couple prosecuted for illegal ‘management !’ of agricultural workers in 2018.

    As with Nick’s description above horrendous slave like living conditions of 12 to a room; withheld pay and passports; debts incurred, just in originally travelling to Portugal – impossible to pay off so the work contracts rolled over.

    The Portuguese State going through the motions of a prosecution but intentionally falling down in taking statements from a dozen of more workers detailing the abuse then, in collusion with neighbouring landowners, making those workers unemployable.

    Although vital witnesses – fundamental to the prosecution – these abused workers leave Portugal with no attempt by the prosecution to support them until the court hearing in Portugal or keep in contact with them having left the country.

    Bingo ! 3 years later, at the court hearing, the statements are dismissed as the disappeared workers who gave them cannot be cross-examined.

    The gangmaster – as linked below – given a 2 year jail sentence suspended for his hoped for good behaviour of 2 years.

    Man sentenced in Beja to two years suspended prison for aiding illegal immigration

    Petrica Usurelu and the company he owned, Angy San, Ldª were each convicted of one crime of aiding illegal immigration.
    Lusa September 30, 2021,

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