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How a minister’s ‘poor meat’ comments in ‘The Guardian’ triggered a political storm in Spain

Alberto Garzón sparked public debate during an interview with the UK daily, where the opposition claims he damaged the livestock industry’s reputation. His party says the uproar is based on a hoax, but even its coalition partner has reacted frostily

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This intensive pig farm in Castilléjar has the highest emissions of ammonium and methane in Spain.Pedro Armestre / Greenpeace

A public debate is raging in Spain over factory farms following remarks made by Consumer Affairs Minister Alberto Garzón that were published in The Guardian in late December. Garzón, who is a member of the left-wing Unidas Podemos – the Socialist Party (PSOE)’s junior partner in Spain’s coalition government – at one point compared extensive farming with factory farming. The latter, which involves large numbers of animals kept indoors their entire lives, is at the heart of a global debate because of its effects on animal welfare and the environment.

“Extensive farming is an environmentally sustainable means of cattle farming and one that has a lot of heft in parts of Spain such as Asturias, parts of Castilla y León, Andalusia and Extremadura,” Garzón told the UK daily. “That is sustainable; what isn’t at all sustainable is these so-called mega-farms… They find a village in a depopulated bit of Spain and put in 4,000, or 5,000, or 10,000 head of cattle. They pollute the soil, they pollute the water and then they export this poor quality meat from these ill-treated animals.”

Since then, Garzón has been the target of fierce criticism in Spain, even from his Socialist partners in government. On Tuesday, Agriculture Minister Luis Planas gave four interviews in which he underscored that the PSOE does not share Garzón’s views. The thrust of his message was that the Socialists defend livestock farming, even the intensive kind. He also noted that Spain is the European Union’s fourth-largest meat exporter and the eighth in the world.

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A pig farm in Germany. Getty

Opposition groups have jumped on this division within the coalition. The conservative Popular Party (PP), the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) and the ultranationalist Vox want Garzón to appear before the Congress of Deputies to offer explanations. Ciudadanos spokesperson Edmundo Bal claimed that Garzón said “Spanish meat is of poorer quality,” and PP representative Cuca Gamarra said that “severe damage has been inflicted to the Spanish economy, on a sector with annual turnover of €50 billion.”

Unidas Podemos feels the whole debate has been manufactured because Garzón only targeted factory farms in his statements to The Guardian, not all of Spain’s meat production as the opposition suggests. “The mass distribution of hoaxes and their normalization is a slippery slope and we saw how that ended in the US,” said the group’s parliamentary spokesperson, Pablo Echenique. “Several initiatives based on the hoax about Garzón and the factory farms are reaching Congress. We are going to protect democracy and try to stop them.”

This was not the first time that Garzón had criticized factory farms, but never before had his remarks proved so controversial. In July 2021, he told television network La Sexta that “the mega-farm model means few jobs, animal abuse, ground and water pollution, and destruction of extensive cattle farming.”

The controversy began on January 3, when the regional premier of Castilla y León, Alfonso Fernández Mañueco of the PP, posted a comment on Twitter linking to a website specializing in meat industry news that claimed “Garzón states in The Guardian that Spain exports poor quality meat from ill-treated animals.” Mañueco tweeted: “What has Castilla y León done for the government of Spain to be once again attacking our livestock farmers? They will find us standing up for the men and women of the countryside. The Consumer Affairs Minister has to retract or resign.”

Mañueco’s message, posted shortly before the region is due to hold elections on February 13, triggered a flood of similar remarks by other right-of-center politicians. On January 4, Garzón shared the transcript of the interview in an effort to prove that his criticism was aimed exclusively at factory farms. But that was followed by negative comments from PSOE officials, including the regional premier of Castilla-La Mancha, Emiliano García-Page: “You can’t inflict gratuitous damage on such an important sector, particularly when it is baseless,” he said.

On Monday, even Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez indirectly mentioned the issue when he told the Cadena SER radio network that “as the head of government, I express my regrets over the controversy, and I think that says it all.”

Measures against factory farms

Both the central government and several regions of Spain are taking steps to curb the spread of factory farms. The Agriculture Ministry is drafting a decree to regulate the size of cattle farms with an upper limit of 850 head.

Castilla-La Mancha has announced a moratorium on new mega-farms or on enlarging existing ones until December 2024. Aragón has put forward a bill to limit the size of all intensive livestock operations, while Navarre has banned construction or expansion of farms with more than 1,250 head of cattle and Catalonia has taken steps to prevent new projects from being authorized.

What are factory farms?

Factory farms are a form of intensive livestock breeding that concentrates thousands of animals inside industrial buildings where they spend all their lives. “Animals on mega-farms do not go out onto a field at any time,” explains Pablo Manzano, a researcher at the Basque Center for Climate Change of the Basque Country University. While there is no official definition or specific number of animals that constitute a factory farm, “it is best understood by comparing it to an extensive livestock farm, where the animals graze and production is tied to the territory.”

Factory farms produce bad smells and contaminate water and the soil with nitrate-laden runoff. This is a particularly relevant problem in Catalonia, one of the regions of Spain with the highest production of pork meat.

“The ecosystem around megafarms cannot cope with the tremendous amount of urine and other forms of animal waste,” notes Manzano. “With one pig, the land does not suffer. But with 30,000, with that kind of density in such a small piece of land, it’s impossible.”

While the industry holds that factory farms create jobs, a recent study by the green group Ecologists in Action analyzing hundreds of small villages with intensive pig farming found that in most cases, these locations lost residents. “The smell is unbearable, you never get used to it,” said Fidel Aldudo, a former deputy mayor of La Pared, a small community in Albacete province. 

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