As Spanish Catholics prepare to give up meat on Fridays as part of the holy season of Lent, a government minister has sparked a political row after suggesting eating less meat would be a good idea.
Spain is the leading European exporter of ham and Ham as it is called in Spanish, is a national gastronomic icon, along with paella or Rioja wine.
So when Spain’s consumer minister Alberto Garzón recently suggested that eating less meat would help fight climate change and that factory farms could cause pollution, it sparked a fiery national debate over farming methods. .
He expressed support for traditional farming methods in which cattle or pigs are allowed to graze.
“It’s sustainable; what’s not sustainable are these so-called mega-farms,” Garzón said in an interview with The Guardian, a British newspaper.
“They find a village in a depopulated part of Spain and put 4,000, 5,000 or 10,000 head of cattle there. They pollute the soil; they pollute the water and then they export this poor quality meat from these abused animals.
The conservative People’s Party, the main opposition party, seized on the dispute to try to win over disgruntled voters in rural areas.
Pablo Casado, leader of the People’s Party, said in a speech earlier in February that voters needed “more agriculture and less communism” – a reference to Garzón’s membership in the far-left La United Left which was linked to the Communist Party.
The dispute has created a rift in Spain’s coalition government between the center-left moderate Socialists and their junior partners, the far-left Unidas Podemos.
The Spanish government said last week that mega-farms, which contain more than 10,000 animals, account for just 0.016% of all farms in the country.
As the debate escalated, angry farmers seeking new permits to open new farms in Lorca, Murcia, southeastern Spain, stormed the local council last month. Seven have been charged with public order offenses and will be tried later this year.
In Lorca there are 2,040 farms, of which 663 are pig farms, the city council said.
Another town in the Region of Murcia is Jumilla where 16 pig farms house 240,000 animals, according to environmental group Save Our Land, or SOL.
Cati Rodriguez of the group claimed that animal waste enters the local water supply and contaminates the drinking water supply.
“We get our water from aquifers, but there are such high levels of animal waste that it passes into the water supply. Testing with Greenpeace last year found the level of nitrates to be 50% per litre, which is above the safe level for human consumption,” she told VOA.
She said the problem was not limited to Jumilla but existed across Spain.
VOA contacted Cefusa, responsible for the Jumilla farms. A spokesperson, who asked not to be named in accordance with company policy, said Cefusa strictly complies with applicable environmental legislation. “We have adapted our facilities and our production model to the requirements established in the various environmental prevention regulations applicable at regional, national and European levels in recent years,” the spokesperson said.
In nearby Castilla la Mancha, home to Miguel de Cervantes’ famous knight-errant Don Quixote, there are 1.7 million pigs, according to Spanish government figures.
Emiliano Garcia-Page, the socialist regional president, insisted that despite criticism from environmentalists, conditions at the large factory farms comply with European Union health and safety regulations.
As if to prove his point, he invited Garzón to visit a farm.
“When you know how (these farms) work from the inside and how the agro-food industry works, you will see that Spain has extraordinary levels of quality and guarantee. Otherwise, you are going to go through your life without being able to order a sausage or a steak,” he said.
Ham not only occupies a symbolic position in society, but in economic terms it is the country’s second agricultural export after fruits and vegetables.
In 2020, meat brought in $6.09 billion in revenue compared to $7.88 billion for fruits and vegetables.
Germany has long been the biggest pork producer in the European Union, but an outbreak of African swine fever in 2020 made Spain the top exporter to the lucrative Chinese market.
There are several types of Spanish ham which are produced in different ways.
At the top of the market is Bellota Iberian ham, which is made from black pigs. They are allowed to graze for years on the grasslands and are fed acorns and grasses.
Iberian cebo ham is made from animals fed with fodder and grain. Both are considered delicacies along with jamón serrano.
Processed ham is usually produced on industrial-scale farms where hundreds or even thousands of animals are raised.
To change the mentalities
Attitudes towards the way animals are treated are changing in Spain.
A survey published in January by the BBVA Foundation, associated with Spain’s second largest bank, found that most Spaniards polled reject their use in circuses, bullfights and for cosmetics research.
Eight in ten people said they felt animals should be respected, in the survey of 2,000 people.
Animal rights organizations have carried out a series of high-profile undercover investigations to expose allegations of animal abuse on farms.
The directors of Los Hermanos Carrasco, the company that controls a pig farm in Totana, Murcia, are to be tried for animal cruelty and harm to public health after an investigation by Igualdad Animal. They deny the allegations.