An industry in the spotlight
It is easy to condemn the plastic sea of greenhouses in Almería, Spain as an environmental nightmare. The pressures are clear to see: a region that has around 30,000 hectares of land under cultivation (the majority of which is under plastic), is also the most rapidly desertifying region in the country. El Ejido, Almería, known somewhat notoriously as the greenhouse of Europe, uses intensive agriculture methods to produce significant amounts of fruit and vegetables that supply the domestic and European markets. An entire self-perpetuating industry of plastic production and recycling provides for this demand. Such intensive agriculture is depleting aquifers, degrading soil and hastening desertification; plastic is piling up in the countryside and significant amounts of it are winding up in the sea.
On the other hand, it is also easy to see how people who live and work in the region consider this same environmental nightmare to be an economic miracle. Almeria’s highly-intensive production system has been the economic driver of the region, helping to turn it into a significant national supplier and a predominant exporter. Spain is currently the world’s third largest tomato exporter, and just under 60% of those tomatoes come from the province of Almería alone (source). It is worth asking whether all this production is really as dirty as it has been painted in the past.
The answer to that is certainly not clear. A report called Greenhouse Agriculture in Almería: A comprehensive techno-economic analysis, sponsored by Cajamar Caja Rural, asserts that Almería’s greenhouses, thanks to natural ventilation systems and whitewashing techniques, are already the most efficient in Europe with regard to impact on global warming. As for the future, the Cajamar report points to a shift in the commitment of Almería’s many producers toward more sustainable methods of farming, as a response to both consumer demands and environmental pressures. Innovations in pest control have seen significant reductions in the use of pesticides, and more greenhouses are being devoted to hydroponic production than ever before.
Largely because of its size, climate and existing infrastructure, El Ejido’s plastic sea has become a hotbed of agricultural and climate science research, and hundreds of agronomists base themselves in the area. There are numerous studies that parse and analyze the many factors which determine the region’s sustainability; groups such as the ECPA are active in supporting regional initiatives that incorporate smart farming technologies into the supply chain. But these reports are tempered by the fear that it’s not enough.
While innovation that cleans up production methods and improves efficiency is not lacking, there is a clear and pressing need to alleviate larger environmental pressures while maintaining a robust economy. I set out to determine what kind of progress is being made to incorporate agricultural innovations into Almería’s production systems. How can we reimagine the future of this region to scale back plastic coverage and mitigate the problems facing a rapidly-desertifying region? What I found along the way was a variety of perspectives, both within and outside of Spain, that are looking at the problem with a futuristic approach.
Greening the desert with greenhouses is possible!
To begin with, what would such a reimagining look like? I let my own imagination run wild:
Solar panels take advantage of all the sunlight, provide shade to combat desertification, and power LEDs in vertical farms; water retention landscaping makes the most out of what little water falls (200mm/year), and contribute it toward a sustainable production system; salt water capture and desalination provide fresh water; the end result is an entirely sustainable system that integrates renewable energy with food and fresh water production.
Researching this idea, I came across the work of the Sahara Forest Project (SFP), an organization which seeks to provide “fresh water, food and renewable energy in hot, arid regions, as well as revegetating areas of uninhabited desert.” They have already completed a pilot project in Qatar that incorporates:
- Concentrated solar power
- Photovoltaic solar power
- Saltwater-cooled greenhouses
- Food Production
- Outside vegetation
- Salt production
- Halophyte growth
- Algae production
The success of this pilot project gives hope to the idea that, with cooperation between various stakeholders, a system can be put in place that is both productive and restorative. This self-sustaining system seemed to tick all the boxes for my idea in Almería, and more. Indeed, the parcels of land surrounding El Ejido fit all of the SFP’s site requirements, notwithstanding social and financial factors (collective action, private industry), which I was unable to ascertain for the purposes of this article. SFP identified 20 hectares as the minimum for viable large-scale facilities- what could they do with 30,000?
An integrated greenhouse system in El Ejido
Full of inspiration from reading about SFP, I wanted to get a handle on what it would take to transition the hundreds of small-medium holders, large companies and co-ops of El Ejido into a more integrated system in support of the environment. I spoke with Jorge Garcia de Opazo, an agronomist and blogger based in Spain. He was vocal about the potential for AgTech in revolutionizing the region’s infrastructure. According to Jorge, there are many companies already working to implement sensor systems for measuring and improving the parameters of production. He highlighted big data’s role in using algorithms to improve day-to-day crop management, and new apps that allow for remote control of crop irrigation from smartphones and other robotic applications. But what about all that plastic?
“El Ejido is characterized as a small area of land which produces enough vegetables to supply most of the national market and part of the European market throughout the year thanks to the constant improvement of new varieties, technology and its favorable climate. Presently, it seems that no more could be produced without having to inevitably increase the surface of the soil under cultivation. However, new technologies such as vertical agriculture, open new doors to be able to produce much more food, without having to hoard more land.”
Jorge went on to identify an “anti-technological mental barrier” that I found echoed by many of the people I talked to about the subject. This mental barrier is also present, by another name, in various studies that I read regarding El Ejido’s sustainability: users’ readiness to change. This article, from 2016, praises El Ejido’s many small-holders as being, “well-organised, innovative and flexible,” and credits them with the region’s transition from heavy pesticide use to a system that uses chemical treatments only as a last resort.
Such capacity for innovation should not be lost in the discussion over the potential for larger-scale changes. Once this mental barrier has been overcome, it will be possible to consider introducing new production concepts such as vertical agriculture on a large scale. This could be the first step toward a more integrated system that would help reduce the amount of land under plastic, allow for restoration of the ecosystem, and generate an even greater economic benefit. Could profit be a catalyzing factor to speed up the hurdle over such a mental barrier? Joel Cuello, in his interview with the AVF Press Team identified the link between profit and progress:
“Once you have economic sustainability, you can reap the benefits of environmental sustainability, which leads to social sustainability, creating social capital that leads to trust and cooperation.”
Can vertical farming be used to reimagine plastic sprawl?
The trust and cooperation of all stakeholders is vital for the transition from a plastic-heavy, unsustainable infrastructure to something more in keeping with the agriculture of the future. Almería is already starting from a point of relative economic sustainability; is this trust readily available among the farmers in the region? Jorge thinks not, but he has a solution:
“I think that the way in which the farmers’ thinking will change and welcome new technologies is to introduce, little by little, the new agricultural technologies that will take us into the future:
- A network of sensors that monitor your entire greenhouse
- Process all the data we get from those sensors by Big Data, 3. Put them in the palm of your hand by developing intuitive apps that provide you with an advantage in making daily decisions to bring your harvest to a successful conclusion.”
The winds of change are pointing toward a positive future in El Ejido. Teleprensa recently covered the first ever Andalusian Congress on Agriculture, Energy and Water, which invited experts from around the world to discuss the potential for integrating solar panels and intensive agriculture. The article quotes Professor Ángel Carreño from the University of Almeria as saying that the use of photovoltaic panels in greenhouses can allow for a greater technification of the region’s infrastructure. By installing solar panels on even a small percentage of Almería’s greenhouse roofs, the industry can drastically reduce its environmental impact and create a wealth of new jobs. This is the kind of economic, environmental and social sustainability that sets the stage for even greater technification.
Little by little, innovation and the potential for additional profit can win over the trust of the community which, as Professor Cuello points out, makes it easier to adopt concepts like vertical farming as viable business models. Thanks to its extensive infrastructure, El Ejido is gaining momentum as an epicenter for the research and implementation of smart farming techniques. People are aware of the problems, but also of the potential, for a region that has always been at the forefront of climate-controlled agriculture. Thinking big is what turned a rural, agrarian and poor region into Spain’s preeminent food producer; thinking big is currently driving the smart-agriculture revolution that seeks to study Almería’s models and improve efficiency. Ultimately, it will be thinking big that helps Almería’s agriculture industry overcome the environmental pressures that seek to undo it.
This article was researched and written by AVF Correspondent Kyle Baldock.
Almeria’s production statistics here
Jorge Garcia de Opazo, agronomist and blogger at La Huerta Digital
Joel Cuello, at the University of Arizona’s Water Network
Teleprensa article here