“Toilet of Europe”: Spanish pig farms are responsible for the massive mortality of fish | Agriculture


Pollution from hundreds of intensive pig farms may have played a bigger role than publicly acknowledged in the collapse of one of Europe’s largest saltwater lagoons, according to a new investigation.

Residents of the Murcia region in southeastern Spain raised alarm bells in August after dozens of dead fish began washing up on the shores of the Mar Menor lagoon. Within days, the toll had climbed to more than five tonnes of rotting carcasses littering beaches that were once a major tourist draw.

Images of the lagoon’s murky waters and complaints about its foul stench dominated media coverage across Spain for days, as scientists blamed decades of nitrate-laden runoff for triggering vast blooms of algae that had depleted the water of oxygen – essentially leaving fish to suffocate underwater.

A four-month investigation by Lighthouse Reports and journalists from elDiario.es and La Marea has examined the extent to which intensive pig farming may have contributed to one of Spain’s worst environmental disasters in recent years.

This summer, as lifeless fish continued to wash up on the shores of the Mar Menor, the regional government banned the use of fertilizers within 1.5 km (0.9 miles) of the lagoon, implying that the blame for the crisis lay solely with the vast expanse of farmland. fields bordering the lagoon. The central government has been more direct, accusing local authorities of lax oversight of field irrigation.

But neither mentioned the pig farms that have proliferated over the past decade in the Mar Menor catchment.

In 2019, a report by the Spanish Ministry of the Environment estimated that these pig farms – which at the time had nearly 800,000 animals – could be responsible for 17% of the nitrogen in the Mar Menor aquifer.

Drone photographs and satellite images of the area, collected in September by reporters working on the new investigation, appeared to show hog waste spilling out of manure ponds, dumped on nearby land or stored in large holes in ground.

The findings of the investigation echo the 2019 report from the Ministry of the Environment. During visits to 10% of the slurry pits in the Mar Menor basin, it was found that more than 90% had not complied with the regulation that pig waste must be stored in closed watertight ponds, notes the report.

“Major shortcomings have been detected in the livestock waste storage facilities… sealing is almost non-existent, allowing the waste to infiltrate directly into the ground and leading to contamination of the aquifer”, a- he added.

“It is obvious that the main source of pollution is intensive agriculture in the Mar Menor basin, but there are around 450 pig farms in the basin that nobody talks about,” said María Giménez Casalduero, professor at the University of Murcia and regional coordinator. of the political party Más País. “It’s like giving amnesty to the pork industry.”

Spanish pork exports booming

The number of pigs in the Murcia region has reached record levels, reflecting an increase in farms and slaughterhouses across Spain. More than 56 million pigs were slaughtered across Spain last year, 3 million more than in 2019, and growing export demand has caused Spain to overtake Germany as the top EU pork producer this year.

Nearly half of the demand for Spanish chorizo, tenderloin and lard came from China, which lost around 40% of its pigs to an outbreak of African swine fever.

The Mar Menor collapse is a reminder of the environmental trade-offs – from nitrogen and ammonia-laden manure to methane emissions – to fuel an industry where turnover in 2019 exceeded 15 billion euros (13 billion pounds sterling), said Gimenéz Casalduero.

“Mar Menor is a wake-up call,” she said. “If you want to supply China Ham [ham]you do this by destroying the territory and becoming a dumping ground for the waste of the international pork market.

It’s a cost that rarely features in discussions of exports, she added. “We have to decide: up to what limit can we continue to use our natural resources and impact our environment to satisfy international markets? The Region of Murcia cannot become the toilets of Europe.

The influx of dead fish to the shores of the Mar Menor this summer was the latest chapter in a decades-long collapse. In 2016, algal blooms turned the waters of the Mar Menor into a dense, green soup, while in 2019 thousands of dead fish and shellfish washed up on its shores.

As scrutiny intensified over the intensive agricultural fields that border the lagoon, groups representing farmers argued that they were in full compliance with environmental legislation.

Municipal workers clean up dead fish from the shores of Murcia’s Mar Menor. Photograph: Reuters

Nearly 45 km from the shores of the lagoon, the municipality of Fuente Álamo is home to at least 289 farms which represent 80% of the intensive farming in the Mar Menor basin. According to regional government figures from 2018, the basin has 1,055 slurry ponds – filled with waste including faeces, urine and blood.

The regional government refuted the Environment Ministry’s 2019 report, saying in an email that it “does not correspond to the reality of the region”.

“Ponds are naturally impervious, a method recognized by national legislation, current and past,” he said, adding that this method of isolation was permitted where the soil was deemed to have low permeability with little risk of contaminate the aquifer.

Since 2019, the regional government said it had carried out 40 inspections, resulting in three cases in which it plans to take action.

Officials in the region, as well as municipalities in the Mar Menor basin, have been reluctant to suppress the growth of the pig industry, said Andrés Pedreño Cánovas, professor of sociology at the University of Murcia.

“Pig farms have grown out of control, creating a bubble fueled by international markets and especially exports to China,” he said. “But bubbles always burst, and this one will leave behind a devastated, polluted and crisis-ridden land.”

Interporc Spain, which represents the white pig sector – the breed widely used in intensive farming – said the Spanish industry had been making “great efforts” for years to protect the environment. “In Spain, more than 90% of pig manure is reused to replace fertilizers, but it can also be treated and transformed into electrical energy,” she said in a press release.

The professional body also discussed the 2019 report from the Ministry of the Environment. “If any shortcomings have been found, obviously the farm needs to correct them and the administration needs to ensure that this is done,” he said. “But statements cannot be made on the whole sector due to the fact that errors were detected in some cases.”

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