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).
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.”
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”.
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.