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Spain's Sea of Plastic: Greenhouses in Almeria


by Alex Doyle

Few man-made structures are visible from space, the Great Wall of China is perhaps the most well-known. However, a modern addition to the list is Spain’s collection of greenhouses, located in the region of Almeria, south of Spain. An aerial view shows the vast swathes of land which the greenhouses occupy: an immense white blob of plastic sheeting standing out between the Sierra Alhamilla national park to the north and the Mediterranean Sea to the south.

However, this aerial view of the greenhouses offers little insight into the reality underneath the thick layer of plastic; an attack on both human rights and environmental stability.

The greenhouses use a method of intensive farming to churn out huge quantities of fruit and vegetables for a European market hungry for a constant supply of cheap and cartoon-aesthetic goods throughout the year. In fact, a staggering quantity of more than half of Europe’s demand for fresh fruit and vegetables is satisfied in Almeria. The primary market is Britain, followed by France and Germany.

These low prices paid for the produce are in large part due to the shamefully low-cost migrant labour. A typical day for a migrant worker in the greenhouses of Almeria begins by trudging from their squalid and makeshift shelters to a street corner. Here, they await potential selection by their superiors as they carry out their daily pick-up run of potential recruits for a day’s work. Despite the unappealing prospect of gruelling labour under 50-degree heat and exposure to lethal pesticides, the migrants eagerly queue up for a selection process shudderingly similar to the that of the slave trade. Naturally, the strongest and fittest are those which are chosen first.

The jostling between desperate migrants for a day’s work reflects their lack of bargaining power in their relationship with the ruthless greenhouse owners. Not only is the competition for jobs fierce given the large number of migrants (mostly West-African), but given that the majority lack documentation, the potential to obtain a fair contract is a very distant reality. They desperately put up with pitiful working conditions driven by a combination of the fear of being without an income and being reported to the police.  The migrants also harbour a tragically misplaced hope of a potential exit-route to a life of comfort in another spot in Europe. This unfortunately, is very rarely achieved. They are trapped in a precarious situation, running along a double tightrope of financial and legal uncertainty, with no choice but to succumb to authority. Despite the existence of organisations lobbying on behalf of the migrant workers against a long list of human rights abuses, the exploitation is destined to continue given the insatiable demand for cheap fruit and vegetables all year round.

It is this demand for out-of-season food which has in large part allowed the greenhouses of Almeria to build such a successful business model. The intensive mode of food production which clashes with natural processes and limits has not only come at a direct human cost; the ramifications on the local environment are equally calamitous. The plastic sheeting is the biggest culprit here. Not only is surplus or waste plastic scattered around the region resulting in blocked riverbeds and contamination, but it is also common practice to burn the sheeting, releasing toxic fumes. In addition, both plastic and chemical waste runs directly into the Mediterranean, causing damage to the local ecology. A recent case of a dead sperm whale from the ingestion of plastic mess has been directly attributed to Almeria’s greenhouses.

Despite the objective failings of the greenhouses on both a human and environmental front, there exist some who laud the existence of the plastic sea as a success. Indeed, the ability to produce large amounts of food all year round and sell it at an affordable price allows for a greater number of individuals to have access to a varied diet. It is true that in critiquing this model of food production, one must be cautious not to forget that this is usually done from a position of privilege.

The boycotting of food produced by the greenhouses which is sold in British supermarkets usually entails committing to the purchase of higher priced items. This is a typical example of what Van Jones dubs ‘eco-apartheid’ - a sort of lifestyle environmentalism exclusively enjoyed by the wealthy. This truism however, in my opinion, cannot serve as a justification for the crushing neglect of basic human rights and environmental stability present in the greenhouses. More must be done to condemn the poor practices of large-scale food production firms and commit to methods which allow for affordable products for the consumer, without the exploitation of a vulnerable work force and environment.

The horror story of the greenhouses has been widely documented, but it merits repeating given the widespread impact that they continue to have. In a world in which the myriad of variables surrounding the ethics of consumer choices is overwhelming; the continued existence of the greenhouses serves to further limit the already minimal power of the consumer, not only to lead a life of ethical consumption, but to enact change in production patterns. Ironically, the recent wave of individuals to adopt plant-based diets in the western world has served to prop up developments like the Almerian greenhouses. This fact must however not dissuade individuals from shirking meat, since the well-known implications of a meat heavy diet are arguably worse. The emphasis here is to illustrate that the tendency for westerners to adopt a dualist mindset and categorise certain products as ‘good’ and others as ‘bad’, can occasionally backfire. Concretely in this scenario, it refers to the misconception that fruit and vegetables are free of ethical issues.

Ultimately however, it would be irresponsible to place the responsibility on the consumer; it must be stressed that food production models such as that of Almeria serve to exhibit the systematic failings of capitalism to ensure that the planet’s limited resources are enjoyed by all, and the devastating violations of environmental balances and human rights that come with this model.


Study Abroad Columnist: Alex Doyle, 3rd Year Undergraduate. Currently studying abroad at University of Oviedo, Spain.