<taken from the Food Union Blog, from the Pod in Coventry> 

Anyone got any idea what this is…?

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This is the Province of Almeria, in Spain. According to some sources, and as you can see from the picture, upwards of 75% of the region is covered in polythene greenhouses. The principal reason for their concentration here is to take advantage of the region’s remarkable weather conditions: only 35 days of annual cloud cover. With such large quantities of sunlight, the Almerian farmers are able to grow all the way through the year, and to supply the European and world agricultural markets with fresh fruit and veg, even in the darkest depths of winter. Chances are if you’ve eaten a fresh tomato in January it’s come from Almeria, Spain.

End of story…? Absolutely not. Certainly, the agricultural businesses and trade officials in the region would have us believe such a system is (far from the ecological and social nightmare it appears to be) kind to the environment, fair to its workers, and a sensible solution to the expanding global demand for year-round, affordable fresh fruit and veg. A short documentary (2008), produced by ‘El Ejido, Almeria’, makes numerous claims as to the environmental sustainability, labour standards, and increasingly urgent need for such intensive production regimes. What possible reason would they have to mislead us? Check out the documentary here and decide for yourself. If you can stomach its unsettlingly utopian tone, it’s actually very interesting.

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Thankfully, ‘El Ejido, Almeria’ aren’t the only ones with an opinion on Almeria’s agricultural industry. Taking a somewhat different approach to El Ejido, The Law of Profit (2011), examines the conditions endured by Moroccan migrant workers, many undocumented, who work in Almeria’s greenhouses. These workers are rarely offered permanent contracts, work for no more than 30 Euros a day, in temperatures between 40°C and 45°C, and often live in appalling conditions, cut off from electricity, running water, and basic communications networks. Added to this they are roundly despised, not only by the people they work for, but by local community members as well. The precarious position in the global market held by the region’s agricultural industry (directly or indirectly, around 70% of residents depend on the greenhouses for their living) appears to be a deeply corrosive one, making those who depend on and profit from it unable to see the instrumental role such exploitation plays in the financial viability of such a system.

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The Law of Profit paints a picture of a deeply dysfunctional, corrupt and cruel industry propelled maddeningly by the deep contradictions of modern industrial agriculture – contradictions not unlike those found in many other key centres of intensive agricultural production (see the role of undocumented migrant workers in Florida, for example, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers). In contrast to the dubious claims of ‘El Ejido, Almeria’, The Law of Profit, shows us evidence a country littered with polythene refuse and shanti towns, an industry deeply reliant on chemical pesticides (which, among other things, leach into the local water supply), and a whole region locked into a fragile economic niche, liable to collapse should currently favourable trade conditions change or (god forbid) the climate begin to shift.

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As ever, when talking about the global food system this is not about blaming individuals – whether the farmers, the (often) unwitting consumers, or the destitute labour force – but about us asking if we are prepared to accept these conditions either on humanitarian, environmental or political grounds. Another world of agricultural production is possible. I have mentioned before the excellent work done by the Land Workers’ Alliance in rebuilding strength among small-scale and localised farming in the UK, and CSAs like Canalside in Leamington and Five Acre Farm in Ryton who produce excellent, affordable organic veg all year round AND foster strong community at the same time.

As to what has set in motion the cascading migrant crises currently visible across Europe and beyond …? I have to think a little more about that, but I’m sure it has something to do with climate change.