Intensive farming in the Cartagena countryside surrounding el Mar Menor

Major UK salad supplier faces trial in Spain on environmental charges

Image credit: Ecologistas en acción

One of the UK’s largest suppliers of vegetables and salad faces legal action in Spain, accused of illegal farming practices that have led to the destruction of a protected lagoon in the southeast of the country, E&T can reveal.

Magistrates are prosecuting G’s España, a subsidiary of UK firm G’s Group, along with 36 other agricultural companies for the alleged use of illegal desalination plants, which they argue has contributed to the ecological collapse of the Mar Menor, the largest permanent saltwater lagoon in Europe.

G’s España supplies salad to supermarkets including Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsbury's, Marks & Spencer, Asda, Lidl and Co-op. The company has 6,000 hectares of farmland in Murcia, Spain, where it grows fresh vegetables such as lettuce, radish and celery to keep UK supermarket shelves stocked in the winter. It imports more than 400 lorry-loads' worth of produce every week. In 2021, the company made sales amounting to more than £500m.

Of almost 40 companies being investigated for “crimes against the environment,” magistrates say G’s España has caused the greatest damage, estimating the cost to the economy at more than €2.5m. They are calling for a three-and-a-half-year jail sentence for the firm’s former director David Abrahams, according to local media reports.

The Mar Menor is a protected site under the international Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, but runoff rich in fertiliser from decades of intensive agriculture and illegal irrigation has drained into the lagoon, leading to eutrophication and the death of thousands of marine animals in recent years.

The British Retail Consortium, which acts on behalf of the UK’s supermarkets, said its members were “working closely with the supplier to understand the current situation.”

Waitrose, the only supermarket to comment individually on the case said it was “deeply concerned.” A spokesperson added: “We always want to source sustainably… and are investigating as a matter of urgency.”

WWF, the world’s leading independent conservation organisation, said it was calling on the Spanish government “to address illegal abstractions and pollution and urging all businesses sourcing from the region to ensure legality at farm level.”

Teresa Gil, head of WWF Spain’s freshwater programme, said: “People will be shocked to learn that in Spain - where the majority of the UK’s imported fruits and vegetables are grown - poorly regulated and unsustainable water use, alongside agricultural pollution, is driving the catastrophic decline of precious freshwater habitats”.

The region of the Mar Menor has one of the driest climates in Europe, which has driven some farmers to build unauthorised wells and install hundreds of desalination plants to turn the brackish groundwater into water suitable for irrigation. The brine discharged as part of this process is laden with nitrates and magistrates claim these discharges are “one of the main causes of the irreversible and catastrophic deterioration of the Mar Menor ecosystem.”

According to the Spanish government, around 8,000 hectares of farming land surrounding the Mar Menor is irrigated without the correct legal permissions in place.

Last week the investigation, known as ‘Caso Topillo’ and first launched in 2017, progressed to the oral trial stage, paving the way for possible convictions.

As part of Caso Topillo, magistrates are also calling for prison sentences for two former regional politicians, who it says were responsible for a failure by their departments to carry out inspections on the illegal network of wells and desalination plants.

In 2020, legal campaigner ClientEarth, together with environmental group Ecologistas en Acción, submitted a complaint to the European Commission urging it to launch immediate action against Spain’s continued failure to protect the Mar Menor.

Soledad Gallego, ClientEarth’s wildlife and habitats lawyer, said: “As legal guardian of the Mar Menor, the Spanish authorities have a duty to safeguard the lagoon. But time and again, the authorities have failed to comply with this legal obligation.

“Continuing to allow intensive agricultural practices to compromise the Mar Menor and the surrounding land is already causing irreversible harm and will eventually leave the area barren. This will have environmental as well as economic and social repercussions – a lose-lose situation.”

Neither G’s España nor G’s Group responded when approached for comment.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles