We cross the autonomous region of Andalusia in southern Spain on our outward journey to La Herradura, our place to stay for the next few months on the Costa Tropical. The province of Almería is one of the eight Andalusian provinces, bordering the province of Granada, as well as the Murcia region and the Mediterranean Sea

An impressive experience opened up. So far only seen in press pictures and documentaries

Our path leads along what feels like an infinity and in the middle of the notorious mar del plástico (plastic sea) of Almeria. Over 360 square kilometres – the world’s largest concentration of intensive cultivation. Three million tonnes of fruit and vegetables are produced here in greenhouses every year

Photo: AFP

80 % of Spanish vegetable exports ensure that we in northern and central Europe are supplied with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and aubergines, among other things, all year round. Cheaper than all the other vegetables on our shelves.

The amount of rainfall here is the lowest in all of Spain and Desierto de Tabernas is the only desert on the European continent.

Around 3000 hours of sunshine and an average temperature of 27°C in summer and 15°C in winter allow harvests at times of the year when in Central Europe the seeds are barely sown

On the south coast, a strong westerly wind blows on about 100 days. Food grapes were grown here until the 1960s. The wind made further vegetable cultivation difficult. There was little protection behind walls and fences.

Only when the vine structure, built with posts and wires, was covered with plastic did stable structures develop that could withstand stronger winds.

In the 1980s, water pumps were finally used on a large scale and plastic sheds were erected

The high water consumption in agriculture also affects the water reserves in the province. The groundwater, which is fed from fossil water reserves in the Sierra Nevada and from underground rivers from a depth of 100 metres, has declined sharply in recent decades and is now also salinised. This is despite the fact that water consumption has decreased from 240,000 hl to 70,000 hl since the 1980s – while the area has increased threefold.

By means of drip irrigation, hydroponics, rainwater basins and sand with which the planting soil is covered, closed water cycles are created that drastically reduce consumption. Anything else would mean economic ruin for the growers, as the purchase of water is a major cost for the growers

The construction of desalination plants to obtain seawater for irrigation – there are over 900 such plants throughout Spain – could alleviate the situation. But since freshwater extraction from the sea is extremely energy-intensive and Europe’s sunshine room, for whatever reason, does not yet rely on solar energy, this makes water very expensive. Despite all efforts, the annual water deficit is around 50 hectocubic metres per year.

About 80 000 people earn their living in the region,

30 000 of them are immigrants, mainly harvest workers. At first, the workers came mainly from Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa, later also from Ecuador, Romania or Bulgaria.

The situation of the North African migrants, who mostly work illegally in inhumane living conditions and for dumping wages (far below the minimum wage of 35 euros per day) due to their uncertain legal situation, is particularly criticised. There is often talk of slave labour.

Because of the great price pressure from large distributors in Central Europe, there is also little money to be made for producers. Small farmers have not been able to cover their costs for a long time.

In the past, the plant was heavily contaminated with pesticides, which the migrants spread without any protection. Today, according to the producers, 90% of the crops are grown organically. By importing bumblebees as pollinators and imported insects (e.g. Orius laevigatus) as pest controllers, the use of pesticides is largely dispensed with. The organic method is 40% cheaper than the traditional one – this convinced the producers to change.

Despite all this, agricultural chemicals are used in the large monocultures that require intensive fertilisation. Nitrate levels in drinking water are twice the EU limit.

The mainly cultivated longlive tomato appears shiny red fresh on our shelves even three weeks after its harvest. The hard skin delays the rotting time. In one experiment, seen in a YouTube film, a tomato fell unharmed from a height of five metres onto a concrete floor. These could become dangerous projectiles during a demonstration.

I am looking forward to travelling on to Herradura, to the Finca Baobab, where Anja and Charlie maintain their diverse vegetable garden in the shade of fruit trees – similar to a permaculture system, enlivened by birds and insects, fertilised with compost from plant waste and the house’s own donkey dung. Even they cannot escape the problem of water scarcity.