Fifty years ago, one of the few reasons to go to the southeast corner of Spain was to make a film set in the desert, like Lawrence of Arabia or a spaghetti western. Dry, desolate, and sometimes called uninhabitable, the local province of Almeria was the poorest region in the nation.
Today, it’s an endless sprawl of greenhouses–the biggest in the world–that locals call the Mar de Plástico, or the Sea of Plastic. Well over $1 billion in produce is grown each year. In a new photo series, German photographer Bernhard Lang documents the 100,000 acres of greenhouses from above.
“Most of the cheap, low-quality vegetables and fruits sold at food discount stores in Germany come from that place,” Lang says. “I thought that these numerous greenhouses on that huge area could look really interesting from above.”
Locals hail the sea of greenhouses as an economic miracle, but the industry has also damaged the environment. So much groundwater has been used to irrigate the crops that the government was eventually forced to build desalination plants. Plastic trash from the greenhouses is left by roadsides and sometimes ends up in the ocean.
The transformation is just the latest example of how humans have dramatically changed this corner of the world; at one point, the region was covered in forests. Then the Romans showed up, and the Moors, and eventually, almost every tree was gone and the land turned to desert. The question today is whether the current generation on the land can manage resources well enough to continue production–or if there are smarter ways to grow our fruits and vegetables.
Most of the produce is shipped to other parts of Europe; Almeria now grows half of all bell peppers eaten in Europe. But some of it also ends up in North America. The next time you see a tomato labeled “grown in Spain,” this is probably where it came from.