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Saturday, October 01, 2022

Europe’s Thirst for Virtual Water: Blueberry Fields Forever?

Blueberries have long established themselves among the superfoods. They are tasty, low in calories and full of beneficial nutrients. Most importantly, they are a rich source of antioxidants that serve to protect against a range of diseases, most notably cancer. This might explain why the demand for blueberries has steadily increased over the past few years. Between 2015 and 2019, Europe’s blueberry imports increased from 45,000 tons to 113,000 tons. Between 2018 and 2019 alone, the volume of imports rose by more than 40%.


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Blueberries consist mostly of water. In fact, some 85% of the fruit is H2O. And that’s where the problem starts. In Western Europe, most of the blueberries you find in supermarkets today are imported from Spain; more precisely, from one province in the autonomous region of Andalusia, Huelva, located in the southwest, where Spain borders Portugal. Andalusia is known for the beauty of its major cities like Seville, Granada and Cordoba, and its beach resorts of Marbella, Torremolinos and Malaga.

Andalusia also happens to be among the poorest autonomous regions in Spain. In 2019, it ranked close to the bottom with respect to GDP per capita; only Estremadura and Melilla ranked lower. In 2016, around 40% of the population lived in poverty; among children, the poverty rate stood at 44%.

The Blueberry Dark Side

Andalusia has also been the launching pad for Vox, Spain’s radical populist right. In the regional elections of 2018, Vox gained 11% of the vote, which put the party in a pivotal position. Since neither the left nor the right commanded a majority in the region’s parliament, Vox found itself in a position of kingmaker. At the time, Vox came out in favor of the center right. In Huelva, like across Andalusia, Vox is a major political player. In the November national election of 2019, Vox garnered more than 20% of the vote in Huelva, second only to the socialists who won 36%.

Vox is a political force to be reckoned with. The party promotes itself as an ardent defender of ordinary hardworking people and of the unity of the Spanish state, threatened by Catalan and Basque independence aspirations. At the same time, the party has vigorously rejected any human responsibility for climate change. Environmental concerns are certainly not on the party’s agenda.

This brings us back to blueberries from Spain. Over the past several years, the cultivation of blueberries in Huelva province has progressively expanded. Between 2016 and 2020, blueberry spring exports (February to May) increased by more than 80% in volume and more than 40% in value. At the same time, land devoted to blueberries increased from 4.4 squared miles to roughly 14 square miles. As a result, production more than doubled, from 20,815 tons in 2014-15 to 45,506 tons in 2019-20. Altogether, the cultivation of the three major “red fruits” produced in Huelva — blueberries, strawberries and raspberries — provides employment to over 100,000 people, generating roughly €1 billion ($1.2 billion) in revenue.

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This is one side of the equation, one that Huelva’s authorities like to propagate. Unfortunately for them, the other (dark) side has once again been making international headlines. Here the focus is on the disastrous impact that cash crops have had on the natural environment, in particular on the Donana national park, a wetland reserve and UN Heritage site that is a refuge for over 2,000 different species of wildlife and serves as a way station for millions of migratory birds every year.

The national park was already on the receiving end of an environmental catastrophe that severely affected its delicate ecological balance. In 1998, a dam burst at a mine near Seville, releasing up to 5 million cubic meters of toxic slush into the Guadiamar River, the main water source for the park. Cleaning up the mess cost the Spanish state some €90 million. It spent a further €360 million to restore parts of the park. Some of the money came from the European Union. It took several years for the park’s wildlife to recover.

Yet little was learned from the disaster. By 2016, UNESCO threatened to put the park on its danger list. And for good reason: As The Guardian reported at the time, Donana was “said to have lost 80% of its natural water supplies due to marsh drainage, intensive agriculture, and water pollution from the mining industry.” The article cited a report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) that charged that farmers had been drilling more than 1,000 illegal wells that accelerated “the park’s destruction, as drought-resistant plants replace water-dependent ones in the region.”

Ecological Crisis

The expansion of cash crop cultivation in Huelva has only added to the ecological crisis, once again ringing alarm bells not only in individual countries that are among Huelva’s most important customers, such as Germany and the United Kingdom, but also in Brussels. A recent report on the website of Germany’s premier news program, ARD’s “Tagesschau,” set the tone: “Spain’s national park is drying out.” The main reason: Huelva’s red fruit industry has not only encroached on park land but, more importantly, has systematically starved the park of its most important lifeline — water. According to the report, estimates are that roughly 1,000 of the wells dug to irrigate the plantations are illegal. In other words, nothing had changed since 2016.

By 2020, the European Commission had had enough. It took Spain to court. In December, it charged that Spain had looked the other way and allowed the continued illegal appropriation of groundwater, in the process inflicting serious damage to the nationally and internationally protected Donana wetlands. For all practical purposes, the failure lay largely with the regional Andalusian government. Five years ago, the regional government advanced a plan to protect Donana; five years later, according to an article in Spain’s leading newspaper El Pais, only 17% of the measures had been realized, 43% were incomplete, the rest — nada.


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The regional government has, however, made an effort to go after Huelva’s most egregious water thieves. In March, two ex-mayors — one a socialist, the other a conservative — were put on trial together with 13 farmers, all of them accused of illegal appropriation of water. At the same time, the government has tried to shut down illegal wells. But with over a thousand currently in operation, the backlog is great, and more often than not the authorities have met with determined resistance.

At the same time, however, the regional government has continued to license new water rights. In 2017, for instance, the government conceded more than 270,000 cubic meters of public groundwater to a cooperative society, which allowed the cooperative to more than double its production of blueberries in the Sierra de Huelva. All this, as a public official in charge of water management claimed, was done in the name of “sustainable development.” Donana’s endangered wildlife would probably disagree. But then, they don’t have a voice, and those speaking in their name, such as the WWF, have to a large degree been unheeded.

Virtual Water

Spanish blueberries produced in Huelva are a prime example of the ludicrousness of a development strategy based on international trade. Spain is a semi-arid, water-poor country. The distribution of water across the national territory is highly unequal. Water is relatively abundant in the north and relatively scarce in the south. Agriculture accounts for a large junk of the country’s total water use, roughly 60%. Yet agriculture contributes just 3% to the country’s GDP and employs roughly 4% of the active workforce. Particularly in the south, decades of agricultural practices have exhausted the soil and turned once fertile land into desert, shrinking the supply of arable land.

Under the circumstances, producing a crop as water-intensive as blueberries in a semi-arid region borders on the absurd. The amount of water required to produce a certain amount of a product is generally referred to as a water footprint. The water footprint of blueberries is around 840 liters per one kilogram of fruit. This means that embedded in every kilo of blueberries for sale in the local supermarket are more than 800 liters of water. This is what is nowadays known as “virtual water” — the amount of water hidden from and invisible to the end consumer. Virtual water has become an increasingly important concept in international trade theory. What it means in practical terms is that with every kilo of blueberries we import from Spain, we bring in more than 800 liters of water.

By now, the absurdity of the situation should be obvious. Not only do we import water from a water-scarce region, but by importing the virtual water embedded in blueberries, we contribute to the depletion of a scarce resource in the exporting region which, in turn, is a major cause of the gradual destruction of one of Western Europe’s largest natural wetlands. And things are likely to get even worse. The upsurge in demand for blueberries and other red fruits has brought new producers into the market.

As a result, prices have substantially declined, compelling producers to expand production and explore new market opportunities. Just the other day, after years of negotiations, Brazil gave a green light to the importation of blueberries from Huelva after the red fruits industry passed an on-the-ground inspection by a delegation of Brazilian authorities. And Brazil might only be the beginning. Huelva authorities have already set their eyes on even larger markets, notably China and India. In the meantime, environmental advocates are pinning their hopes on the European Court of Justice, which is supposed to consider the case over the next few months. Judgments rendered by the court are binding. Member states are obliged to comply with court decisions without delay. If found guilty, Spain might have to pay heavy fines.

The WWF, which has been among the most vocal and determined advocates of the Donana national park, is confident that the court will rule in its favor. As Juan Carlos del Olmo, the secretary general of WWF Spain, put it, “Spain is about to be condemned for allowing the destruction of Doñana, a heritage that belongs to all Europeans.” He emphasized that the “Spanish authorities and especially the Regional Government of Andalusia, which have both turned a blind eye to this situation for years,” need “to take real measures to halt the degradation of Doñana.” This means, above all, closing the illegal wells that are “looting the aquifer and destroying biodiversity.”

2020 marked the fifth anniversary of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, to which Spain has committed itself “at the highest level.” This includes ensuring “the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources.” It is not entirely obvious how the export of massive amounts of virtual water from Huelva’s blueberry fields is supposed to contribute to the latter goal.

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