Far-left politician Alberto Garzón has sparked a fierce debate in Spain about the state of the country’s farms and their impact on its waterways and countryside.
In an interview with the Guardian in December 2021, Garzón said that industrial mega-farms aren’t “at all sustainable” and that “they pollute the soil, they pollute the water and then they export this poor-quality meat from these ill-treated animals.”
He is correct. Industrial, intensive farms have increasingly been supplanting traditional smallholder farmers for years now, pushing them out of the marketplace thanks to their ability to produce cheap meat. They do this by cramming the animals into crowded barns or cages, by feeding them growth hormones, and prioritizing quantity over quality–both of the animals’ life and the taste of the meat–all of which is made possible by cutting corners when it comes to mitigating the environmental impact of their activities.
Farms with more than 2,000 head of pig or more than 750 breeding sows with piglets are actually required to be cataloged in Spain’s State Register of Pollutant Emissions and Sources (PRTR) because they are already well-known to authorities as major polluters. There are currently around 3,000 of these facilities in Spain, which emitted 96,158 tonnes of methane in 2019 alone–almost half of the total emissions from all pig farming in the country.
Spain is the world’s third-largest exporter of pork behind China and the US, and between 2013 and 2019 there were an average of 20,000 more pigs a week in the country’s factory farms. The organic waste, or slurry, produced by all these thousands of pigs trickles down into the subsoil and later gets washed into the waterways, carrying with it high levels of polluting nitrates of the kind that are currently plaguing Murcia’s Mar Menor lagoon.
In the past, the kind of obvious and factually accurate statement made by Garzón did not provoke backlash from political parties on the left or right. Nor did it outrage a public that can be sensitive to comments critical of Spain.
But this time the meat industry, sensing a threat to its profit margins, took offense. When Garzón said that factory-farmed meat “is a poorer quality meat, it is also a mistreatment of animals and it has a huge and disproportionate ecological impact”, industrial meat producers like the Fuentes Group in Murcia started a media campaign claiming that Garzón had described all Spanish meat as inferior. According to former Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, they paid to get this version of the story published on MSN News in Spain, with friends of the meat industry, including politicians from the conservative Popular Party (PP) and the far-right Vox, fanning the flames it ignited on social media. All other national media then repeated the lie, whipping up a frenzy against Garzón as a traitor to his country and prompting calls for him to resign.
The fate of one politician’s career aside, the debate is starting to bring to light the horrendous conditions in which many pigs, cows, and chickens live in factory farms all over Spain, along with the true environmental cost of such agricultural practices.
Whatever one’s position on the political spectrum, on outspoken politicians, or on meat consumption, the evidence against Spain’s meat industry cannot be ignored. Nor can we afford any longer to turn away from the sad truth of what we are doing to our local environment.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to industrial farms as macrogranjas, which is not an official term and roughly translates to “huge farm.”
Tom Beck is a journalist and Editor of the English-language digital news platform SpanishNewsToday.com, which is dedicated to highlighting environmental injustices in Spain. Connect with him on Twitter @TomBenBeck and LinkedIn.