“They work for me night and day,” smiles Antonio Zamora, standing in his greenhouse. His minuscule employees are bugs that feed on the parasites threatening his peppers.
Zamora, like most of his colleagues, no longer sprays his crops with pesticides, instead hanging small bags of mites on the plants, leaving them to attack parasites while sparing his produce.
He owns two hectares (five acres) in the so-called “Sea of Plastic”, some 30,000 hectares of greenhouses in southeastern Spain’s Almeria province, where much of Europe’s fruits and vegetables are grown.
The sparkling mosaic of white plastic bordering the Mediterranean — which is visible from space — produces tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes, peppers and aubergines all year round to supply Europe’s supermarkets.
Last year 2.5 million tonnes of produce was exported from Almeria, half of Spain’s total vegetable exports.
Like Zamora, virtually all pepper growers in Almeria have replaced insecticides with so-called “biological control” using insects.
About 60 percent of tomato growers have done the same, along with a quarter of courgette producers, according to the producers’ association Coexphal.
Consumption of insecticides in Almeria — where agriculture employs some 120,000 people and accounts for 20 percent of economic output — has dropped by 40 percent since 2007, according to local authorities.
A trillion insects
The use of insecticides surged in the 1960s, but farmers have adopted new methods under pressure from consumer groups as well as the fact that their crops have become increasingly resistant to the chemicals.
“We have had to change course. The use of pesticides became excessive,” said Jan van der Blom, an expert in biocontrol at Coexphal.
Encarnacion Samblas of environmental group Ecologists in Action described the change as a “very positive step”.
“In many cases the reduction in the use of chemical products has been drastic, and the substances that are still in use are softer,” she said.
French agricultural cooperative InVivo, which has yearly sales of 5.5 billion euros ($6.2 billion), recently opened a “biofactory”, Bioline Iberia, in the heart of the Sea of Plastic.