Conscious European consumers want less and less Spanish strawberries

by Lorraine Williamson

PROVINCIA DE HUELVA – The Andalucian province of Huelva has been supplying the European market with large red strawberries for decades. Moreover, these traditionally herald the end of winter. Furthermore, Huelva is considered the largest producer of strawberries in the world.

Raspberries and blueberries also thrive here under plastic covers. 80% of the harvest is exported and provides local farmers with a good income. But the multi-million dollar business is increasingly under attack. Furthermore, European consumers are beginning to worry about the sustainability of the production of the fruit in this province. 

National Park is drying up 

An important reason is the plan of the right-wing Andalucian regional government to legalise 1,900 hectares of illegal strawberry fields. These strawberries are fed from springs that have continuously lowered the groundwater level of the Spanish National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Doñana in recent years. 

Drought and illegal water extraction are disasters for Doñana 

The wetland on the Atlantic coast of southern Spain plays an important role as it is a refuge for millions of migratory birds that winter here from northern Europe. The national park, which was established in 1969, has not only been threatened in recent years by drying out due to extremely little rain. The illegal strawberry fields and pits (the environmental organisation WWF speaks of more than a thousand) in the immediate vicinity significantly accelerate this process. 

The planned legalisation of 1,900 hectares must stop 

Now 23 major European food companies are demanding in a letter to Andalucian regional president Juan Manuel Moreno that the planned legalisation of 1,900 hectares is halted. “We are concerned that the proposed change not only jeopardises the sustainability of our supply chain but also poses a threat to Doñana,” said the joint letter, initiated and published by WWF. 

Complete withdrawal of production is not possible 

In addition to the Swiss chain Migros, discounters such as Aldi and Lidl, as well as the food chain Edeka and the British Tesco, also signed the protest letter. According to a Migros spokesperson, the company has been buying strawberries from Doñana for twenty years. “A complete withdrawal from the region would not solve the problem. In our case, it would only punish our long-standing local partners. These partners are consistently implementing Migros’ required standards.” 

Also read: European supermarkets demand responsible agricultural production in Spain 

The EC is also concerned 

The European Commission is now also concerned about the uncontrolled abstraction of water in and around Doñana. However, the EC still approved the last zoning plan for the cultivation fields around Doñana in 2014. At that time, 9,000 hectares had been approved for berry cultivation. But that did not include the 1,900 hectares concerned. 

Not enough water in Doñana for everyone 

The Spanish government is also aware of the problem. “There just isn’t enough water in the Doñana for everyone,” said Spain’s Environment Minister Teresa Ribera. Strawberries from Spain have had a bad reputation for a long time. They are criticised on social networks for their extraordinarily high water consumption of 300 litres per kilogram. Added to this are the precarious working conditions for the pickers. They work for very low hourly wages and live in large numbers at the same time in old buildings or even in slums. 

Farmers and local politicians alarmed 

The message from the powerful supermarket chains has alarmed farmers and local politicians in Huelva. Rocio del Mar Castellano is the mayor of Almonte. With 25,000 inhabitants, this is the largest city on the outskirts of Doñana. She went to Seville to make the regional government change its mind: “The plan endangers and harms our farmers.” The aim is to find a balance between economic interests and nature conservation as quickly as possible, according to the politician. Two-thirds of Huelva’s strawberry growers live in Almonte. They now fear for their future if the European companies terminate their contracts. 

“Strawberry plan” approved in the short term 

The conservative regional government nevertheless wants to have the so-called “strawberry plan” approved in the short term with the support of the right-liberal party Ciudadanos and the far-right Vox. It also doesn’t help that more than a thousand scientists have already signed an appeal to stop robbing Doñana of its water. According to the researchers, the pressure on the nature park is worrying. Climate change and the diversion of groundwater for agriculture formed the “perfect storm”. 

Moreno doesn’t want to give in to environmentalists 

The government in Andalusia did not hear this call. The Andalusian people have to elect a new parliament before the end of the year and prime minister Moreno wants to present himself as a strongman who will not give in to environmentalists. Andalucia’s socialists don’t cut a good figure either. With a view to the elections, they only want to abstain from voting, although the Madrid headquarters have asked them to vote against it. 

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