European supermarkets demand responsible agricultural production in Spain

by Lorraine Williamson
European supermarkets

The environmental crisis of the Mar Menor and the illegal abstraction of water from the Doñana nature reserve is putting increasing pressure on farmers in southern Spain. They are now feeling the demands from a different angle, namely from large chains of European supermarkets. 

This is a shift in the fight against abuses in Spanish fruit and vegetable cultivation. However, much can be gained from this shift because Spain is the second-largest agricultural producer in Europe. And, furthermore, no less than 90% of exports end up in European supermarkets. 

No more ‘wrong’ fruit and vegetables at ALDI 

The German supermarket chain ALDI recently announced that it would no longer put fruit and vegetables on the shelves of farmers who illegally extract water from nature reserves in southern Spain. This measure means 5,000 ALDI supermarkets in 9 European countries, including Spain, contain fruit and vegetables that have been legally grown. 

Consumers from Central Europe are environmentally aware 

According to European director Nico Muzi of the NGO Mighty Earth, consumers from Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and France are the most environmentally aware. Mighty Earth is one of several environmental groups that have urged the European Commission to ban the import of agricultural products that contribute to global deforestation. Moreover, a ban should reduce the footprint of European consumption in the Amazon region and Southeast Asia.  Furthermore, it would also impact European natural areas. According to Muzi, the crisis of the Mar Menor opens the eyes of many European consumers, because this example is not a far-from-my-bed show for them. 

Alarming reports about illegal water use and other abuses are a major threat to the European market for Spanish farmers. After reports on the Mar Menor, Britain announced it would no longer import products from farmers contributing to it. Moreover, this is according to anonymous sources from the agricultural sector.

cogesa expats

Until recently, it was mainly the British supermarket chain Tesco and the German Edeka that demanded high environmental standards from Spanish agricultural producers. They regularly send their own inspectors to Huelva to make sure that no illegal water from the wetlands is used for strawberry cultivation. 

Are Spanish supermarket chains participating? 

Spanish supermarket chains in many cases still rely on the relationship of trust they have with their suppliers. Therefore, after an initial check of the irrigation license, it is hardly ever checked again. Most Spanish supermarkets work with the Global Gap label. But this does not guarantee that the farmers grow their products legally. 

According to WWF agriculture coordinator Felipe Fuentelsaz, Spanish supermarket chains should train inspectors themselves who will check compliance with the legal regulations. President José García-Palacios of agricultural organisation Interfresa in Huelva does not see much benefit in tighter controls. He believes that illegal irrigation should not be tolerated. However, he wants to prevent reporting the state of affairs from further damaging the image of the Spanish agricultural sector. Consequently, he prefers to see a solution that all parties can agree on. To this end, he appointed a team of experts to set up a strategic plan for “sustainability and human responsibility”. 

The European Commission has now launched a strategy for greener agricultural production. The strategy is supported by all EU Member States. And will ensure by 2030 at least 25% of agricultural Eurozone land is used for organic fruit and vegetable production. 

Spain charged with negligence on nitrate pollution 

The EU recently sued Spain in the European Court of Justice for failure to prevent nitrate pollution in natural areas. The Spanish Ministry of Agriculture declined to comment to the daily El País. 

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