Something has moved in the offices of the large Spanish supermarket chains this winter. The strawberry, at the epicenter of the environmental controversy and the political brawl over the decline of Doñana, has been monopolizing environmental protests and consumers aware of sustainability for a year and a half. Since PP and Vox launched their first bill in the Andalusian Parliament to expand irrigation next to the reserve. And these green complaints are starting to take shape. Food chains have seen that the share of consumers who do not want to harm the environment with their shopping basket grows. And most have followed in the footsteps of the Europeans to demand that Huelva strawberry producers prove that they do not contribute to drying up valuable wetlands.
"The picture has changed substantially today. There is a greater concern that comes from before the political noise. Most large companies already require Spring [the seal that guarantees legal water on a farm] and the smaller ones, some have it and the others are in it. The detection of fraud does not believe that it exceeds 5% of the total certifications, "value sources in the food sector close to the domes of the food chains.
However, that optimism has nuances. Sustainability has spread in Spanish chains such as Eroski (4% market share), the French Carrefour (7%) and the German Lidl (6%) and Aldi (1.5%), whose expansion continues to rise. The four are committed to the Spring seal or similar, although only Aldi guarantees that next winter all its strawberries will have this guarantee – in 2022 it was 65% of its 400 stores – and the other three implement it progressively.
The chain most present in the country, Mercadona (27% share), defends its level of demand, but has not yet taken the step of its strawberry producers demonstrating that their farms are included in the official cartography of legal farms. To questions from this newspaper, a spokeswoman limited herself to explaining that "all its suppliers have certificates that guarantee good environmental practices."
Given the extreme drought suffered by Andalusia, the Doñana aquifer is at a minimum. Scientists have found that both groundwater withdrawals from legal farms [with acquired water rights] and illegal ones contribute to its drying and biodiversity being in a critical situation. But the survival of the illegals is on the table because the Andalusian right-wing bill proposes to rename their farms as legal and increase pressure. Meanwhile, the growing wave of ecological certificates to ask for papers, reduces their margin of sale before buyers, increasingly strict.
An express survey of the Interfresa employer among 585 companies, has resulted in 480 of them having the Spring seal (82%) and of the 105 that lack it, "40 are in the process of certification", according to a spokeswoman.
This week the tasty berries of Huelva and their effect on the drying of Doñana with illegal wells have captured attention again after the suspension of the trip of the deputies of the German Bundestag, who in order not to interfere in the general elections reversed and canceled it while already in Madrid and before visiting Andalusia. The withdrawal of the parliamentarians by surprise evidenced a problem that has been almost taboo during these 18 months of controversy: the economic derivative can be catastrophic for the strawberry sector.
The threat is more alive than ever, with a campaign in Germany calling for a boycott of Spanish strawberries and warnings from European chains that the Andalusian government is playing with fire. 80% of the production of red fruits travels to European markets and Germany accounts for 31% of this export in trucks, translated into a business of 448 million, according to figures from the Andalusian Board on foreign trade.
"We are following political developments very closely and are in contact with the Andalusian Government. A year ago we already expressed our concern about environmental protection in Andalusia in our letter, "warns by email a spokeswoman for the German giant Edeka, with 11,000 stores. On that letter, signed by 23 European food chains a year ago, the largest German supermarket chain warned: "With its proposed law, the Andalusian Government is endangering the survival of the Doñana National Park, but also the future of local agriculture."
The Andalusian Minister of Agriculture, Carmen Calvo, has tried this week to placate the criticism of Edeka, Aldi, Lidl and Rewe, all signatories of the letter, and has met with representatives of the chains to "counteract the reputational damage", in her words, and minimize the possible economic damage to the sector as a result of the boycott campaign and the frustrated visit of the German deputies.
It remains to be seen whether the campaign will have any effect on purchases for next winter's season, whose trade deals close this summer.
Harald Ebner (center pictured), a German MP who led his country's delegation of parliamentarians, on Monday in Madrid. Borja Sanchez-Trillo (EFE)
But the concern and possible economic repercussion for the political management of irrigation with Doñana does not only come from Germany. "Illegal farms should not be legalized because they contribute to the terrible situation in Doñana. We observe the development of Huelva very closely and with concern, "warns a spokesman for the Swiss chain Migros, with 635 supermarkets and that last year bought 1,800 tons from three large Huelva producers. The same concern is expressed by a spokesman for the Swedish chain Valora, with 2,700 points of sale: "Appropriate measures should be taken to ensure the long-term sustainability of Doñana's water and soil. If this does not happen, we believe that Andalusia's reputation and development as a strawberry supplier are at risk."
The Swiss chain Coop, with 960 supermarkets, receives letters from time to time from its consumers about whether the strawberries they buy deteriorate Doñana. "We are committed to preserving the ecological balance of the Doñana National Park," says a spokeswoman for the chain, which hires companies specialized in verifying the cartography of its supplier farms through satellites.
The growth of the Spring seal in Spain is parallel to its expansion in the world, where it has quadrupled in the last two years, going from 2,185 to 8,051, according to Alejandra Pistagnesi, responsible for Latin America of the German certifier Global Gap, which grants this guarantee. But being a demanding and expensive seal for the farmer, its expansion only comes when the supermarket demands it. The producer must provide the origin and identification of water sources, their storage facilities and distribution and irrigation systems, an environmental impact risk assessment, a plan to mitigate them, etc. "You have to show that you are more efficient and challenged, with on-demand irrigation and humidity probes. You have an assessment, field notes, audits announced and by surprise from time to time. It's endless documents," confides an agronomist who requested anonymity.
Ignacio González, auditor of the certifier Agrocolor, points out: "The demand for Spring has grown a lot in recent years because the drought and the need for water is of great concern, but I estimate that it will be around 40% of the farms in Huelva," he says, lowering the optimism of the employers, whose survey doubles that percentage.
Apart from the progressive implementation of the seal that guarantees not to deteriorate Doñana, the strawberry sector contemplates the scenario with great concern. The competition is fierce for the success on the shelves of red fruits and more and more regions, such as Aragon, are joining the bandwagon of its production and sale, very settled in the first competitor of Andalusia, Morocco, but also in Germany itself. "I perceive a lot of indignation in the sector. The proposed law has aroused a bad image in the sector and in a small village in Germany they are gridded and do not know which farms are legal and which are not, they will only stop buying if they are convinced that it contributes to damage Doñana, "says the engineer.
New chapters of the political fight
The confrontation between the Government and the Andalusian Junta (PP) does not cease. The pre-campaign of the generals has caused that the reproaches for the proposal of law of PP and Vox to increase the irrigation next to Doñana multiply almost every day. This Friday, the vice president and minister for the Ecological Transition, Teresa Ribera, accused the Andalusian president, Juan Manuel Moreno, of shooting "with gunpowder from the king" for making statements without taking into account their consequences. Despite his criticisms, he extended his hand to the regional executive to dialogue (without putting as a condition the withdrawal of the proposed law), "once he has already achieved the electoral revenue he wanted [in reference to Moreno], to most likely take over the Diputación de Huelva".
The Board responded to the Government by asking it to cease "its insults". "We ask them to change that list of insults for a list of proposals, and if they have something to contribute positively to Andalusia, the best way is in Parliament," said the spokesman of the Executive and Minister of Sustainability, Ramón Fernández-Pacheco.
Meanwhile, scientists view with perplexity the dialectical fight, which excludes meetings to coordinate efforts. "The solution is for politicians to do their job of management, which is deficient and many years behind schedule. Agriculture and the environment in Doñana depend on the Junta, in which the PSOE used to be", censures Eloy Revilla, director of the Biological Station of Doñana CSIC. "The proposed law makes it even more difficult to solve the lack of governance. There are many laws to apply, but we are in elections and common sense does not apply. It is clear that politicians are also not interested in the economic sustainability of the area. By repeating lies they do not become truth, reality is what it is, "he rivets.
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