Insects are getting rid of parasites in 'green farming' greenhouses in southern Spain, but many farmers remain married to conventional pesticides.
"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 in the so-called "Sea of Plastic," some 30,000 hectares of greenhouses located within Spain's southeastern province of Almeria that produces quantities of Europe's fruits and vegetables.
The sparkling mosaic of white plastic—visible from space—produces tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers and eggplant, supplying the continent's supermarkets year-round.
Last year, 2.5 million tons of produce was exported from Almeria, half of Spain's total vegetable exports.
Like Zamora, virtually all pepper growers in Almeria, a municipality that borders the Mediterranean Sea, have replaced insecticides with so-called 'biological control'—insects.
About 60 percent of tomato growers have done the same, along with a quarter of zucchini producers, according to the regional producers' association Coexphal.
Accidental consumption of insecticides in Almeria—where agriculture employs some 120,000 people and accounts for 20 percent of the economy—has dropped by 40 percent since 2007, according to local authorities.
The use of insecticides surged in the 1960s, but farmers there adopted new methods under pressure from consumer groups, as well as the fact that crops became increasingly resistant to 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 the 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 US$6.2 billion, recently opened a "biofactory," Bioline Iberia, in the heart of the Sea of Plastic.
Inside hermetically-sealed rooms with tightly controlled temperature and humidity levels, employees raise four species of mites to be sold in the region, as well as in Portugal and Morocco.
The company projects production of a trillion insects this year.
Several other factories of the same type have sprung up in recent years around the Sea of Plastic, and roughly 30 firms sell insects, at steadily decreasing prices.
"Spain can be considered the largest area in Europe and perhaps the world in terms of the use of biological control," said Bioline Iberia director, Federico Garcia.
But the road to truly green farming remains long, said Samblas, noting that many farmers still use fungicides and various other substances to disinfect soils.
"Farmers continue to use chemicals in a not very rational way because they are recommended, they are sold to them. Often they use them as a routine, without really knowing why," she adds.
Even "organic" greenhouses—with 2,000 hectares certified or seeking the label—are often monocultural, or fail to take proper care of the soil, the ecologist, activist said. Samblas says European regulations on these issues are lacking.
Agronomist Jose Manuel Torres warned that year-round farming methods favor the growth of parasites, arguing that the region should halt production during the summer.