The new battlefield of the environmental struggle: the supermarket | Climate and Environment

Perhaps the solution to the serious problems of the Mar Menor and the theft of water in Doñana is not in the fields of Murcia and Huelva, nor in the Madrid offices or in the courts. Perhaps the key is in the fruit and vegetable section of a supermarket in Berlin, Manchester or Gijón. Because the environmental battle against the bad practices of agribusiness is moving precisely there, to the supermarket. Pressured by consumers, several Central European chains have been tracking fruit and vegetables for years in the south of Spain, the second country with the largest agricultural production in the EU. More than 90% of Spanish exports of these products are destined precisely for the Union markets, so the actions taken by European supermarkets are of vital importance. After the umpteenth episode of fish deaths in the Mar Menor, the German chain ALDI has been the last to take a pressure measure: it has announced that from now on it will refuse to sell fruits and vegetables that contribute to aggravating the problem of irregular use of the water in the most conflictive areas of Spain, such as Murcia, Huelva and Daimiel. The measure will affect its around 5,000 supermarkets spread over nine European countries, including the 350 establishments it has in Spain.

Nico Muzi, director in Europe of the NGO Mighty Earth, dedicated to monitoring the negative effects of agriculture on the environment and human rights, believes that consumers in Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium and France “are among the most aware of the world regarding the impacts of industrial agriculture ”. This organization has been one of those that has pushed for the European Commission to draw up the new law against deforestation that has just been presented and that vetoes imports of products that favor the reduction of tropical forests in the EU. The regulation focuses heavily on the footprint of European consumption in the Amazon and Southeast Asia. But Muzi warns: “Our level of consumption and our way of reducing costs mean that there are not only impacts in South America or Asia, but also in the valuable ecosystems that still remain in Europe.” In his opinion, the case of the Mar Menor could be a “turning point” as it is a local impact within the EU, on a coastline that is not alien to the Central European consumer. “For a German citizen, for example, the coast of Murcia or Almería is part of his life because he knows it well,” explains Muzi.

The agricultural employers’ associations know that each report that the European media broadcasts about environmental damage due to the irregular use of water in Murcia and Huelva, but also due to the lack of recycling of agricultural plastic that covers the greenhouses in Almería, is a door that they are closed to maintain or expand markets within the continent. “After the first ecological collapse of the Mar Menor, they broadcast a documentary in England and, a week later, the English distributors called because they wanted to make sure that they did not contribute to this problem,” illustrate industry sources who request anonymity. In the UK, the Ethical Consumer organization publishes a guide that analyzes the ethics and respect for the environment behind 40,000 products from 23 supermarkets.

From Germany, the Edeka chain, which hires remote sensing companies to verify the location of their farms and the legal use of water in Huelva, defends: “Our employees and external companies make frequent visits to the farms to detect any violation of the systems certification. The operators in the south of Spain give us evidence of the legality of the water used ”, underline sources of the chain, with 4,100 stores in Germany, reports Elena G. Sevillano.

Strawberry picking on a farm in Palos de la Frontera, Huelva.
Strawberry picking on a farm in Palos de la Frontera, Huelva.PACO PUENTES (THE COUNTRY)

Until now, the fight to demand high environmental standards from Spanish farmers had only been fought by British and German giants such as Tesco and Edeka, who regularly sent their own auditors to Huelva to verify that their strawberry suppliers were not depleting the aquifer under the wetlands. valuable from Europe. Most of the large Spanish chains allege that they maintained a relationship of trust with their traditional suppliers and these used to show irrigation licenses whose veracity was not later verified with the hydrographic confederations that authorize them.

But the disaster of the Mar Menor has caused ALDI to make a move also in its supermarkets located in Spain. In addition to questioning 80 Murcian producers to clarify whether they are strangers to illegal wells and desalination plants, the group will analyze the irrigation of its 16 best-selling fruit and vegetable items from Andalusia, Murcia, Castilla-La Mancha, Valencian Community and Madrid, identified as “hot spots” with scarcity and poor water quality. “There is an aesthetic effect in the decision of this chain, but I have not seen such a large movement until now,” says Jesús de la Cort, an international consultant for the United Nations’ sustainable development goals and who works for companies in Huelva that grow fruit. reds, 80% of whose production is exported to Europe.

If decades ago the concern was food safety to avoid possible consumer poisoning, now the focus of the responsible consumer has shifted towards environmental sustainability. “The sections of organic products in European supermarkets are multiplying,” says Muzi, who recalls that the European Commission has a strategy in place, already supported by the Twenty-seven, to promote greener production. The commitment is that at least 25% of agricultural land in the EU will be organically produced by the end of this decade. In addition, Brussels is marking the negative effects of agribusiness and livestock; and it has just denounced Spain before the Court of Justice of the EU for not preventing nitrate contamination of water bodies. The Spanish Ministry of Agriculture has refused to offer its vision to EL PAÍS for this report.

The vast majority of Spanish supermarket chains have the Global Gap seal, but this does not oblige farmers to justify the source of the water with which they irrigate. Little by little, the Spring module has spread throughout Central Europe, which forces auditors to step on the ground and verify that irrigation coincides with the public cartography of legal crops and that in Huelva the Andalusian Board established a plan for 2014. The Large Spanish distribution groups respond that they trust the certificates that farmers send them from Huelva. Spring, on the other hand – now an annex acquired by Global Gap – multiplies the work and investment to verify the irrigation permits. Proof of this is that ALDI has had to postpone its requirement for suppliers to have Spring from January 1 to July 1, 2022.

Fish mortality episode on the beaches of the Mar Menor at the end of July this year.
Fish mortality episode on the beaches of the Mar Menor at the end of July this year.Pedro Martinez

Ignacio Ortiz, general director of the Spanish Association of Distributors, Self-services and Supermarkets (Asedas), maintains that his organization, which brings together the interests of 75% of the distribution sector, “cannot make recommendations”: “It is not our function and Furthermore, the antitrust regulations prevent us from doing so ”. Regarding irrigation with illegal water, Ortiz adds: “We are talking about serious breaches of environmental regulations, which the authorities must start by pursuing and eliminating. The majority of producers comply with the standards and, before raising other quality requirements, distributors need the authorities to do their job and eliminate illegal actions ”.

“If the chains do not put the batteries to guarantee the legal use of water, they will have problems due to the demands of consumers,” predicts Felipe Fuentelsaz, agriculture coordinator at WWF. This conservation organization has developed a global tool for companies and investors – called a water risk filter – that identifies a map of hot spots with water scarcity that points to Murcia, Daimiel, Segovia, Ávila, Seville and Huelva on the Peninsula. Throughout the world, Spain leads the classification called “physical risk”, which measures whether extractions are consistent with the natural availability of resources, only after countries such as Israel, Lebanon or Jordan.

“It is an important step, but Spanish supermarkets must ensure the training of auditors and certifiers to know the legal regulations of the context they audit,” warns Fuentelsaz, who has prepared the WWF guide for supermarkets to verify the legal use of the water in agriculture. From the other side of the barrier in this fight, the president of the association of Huelva producers Interfresa, José Luis García-Palacios, alleges about irregular farmers: “We neither encourage nor limit, we ask that the law be complied with, because in Huelva every drop of water counts. We do not tolerate those who violate the regulations, but of course we will have to find a solution among all, the way cannot be to report in Europe, which gives us a disastrous image ”. Fresera employers have hired a team of experts to design a strategic plan for “environmental sustainability and human responsibility”, as well as an ethical committee of good practices.

Huelva’s greenhouses are a sea of ​​contrasts between the most advanced and efficient irrigation techniques, illegal wells, growing hydroponic crops – rooted in a mineral substrate raised above the ground – and the misery of the immigrant laborers employed to double the spine and pick berries. Fuentelsaz, which figures illegal crops at 1,653 hectares thanks to satellite remote sensing, concludes with a warning: “We have to be brave: consumers demanding, the Administration ensuring compliance with the law and distribution checking their suppliers to offer products healthy. All of them are rowing in the same direction because illegal farms continue to grow and introduce their product to the market ”.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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