“We don’t have enough production in Mallorca for all food to be local." | DANIEL ESPINOSA

When Storm Gloria struck the Balearics in January 2020, shipping was disrupted. One single day of cancellations was enough to lead to empty supermarket shelves for certain products. Since Gloria, there have been pandemic-related issues regarding supplies, the most recent caused by all the Omicron sick leave.

In April last year, the Balearic ministry of agriculture, fisheries and food presented a study which pointed to a 20% or so increase in the consumption of local products because of the pandemic. This increase owed only so much to any issues with supply, as even the state of alarm didn’t actually affect supplies unduly. It was more to do with promotion and awareness; there was growth in the support given by Balearic consumers to local producers.

The state of alarm started around two months after Storm Gloria, a weather event which provoked an assessment of supplies and of local production. Up to 80% of agri-food consumed in the Balearics was being imported to the islands. It was coming from far afield, such as New Zealand lamb, despite the high-quality stock of lamb in Mallorca. Then there was what was being exported and barely being consumed locally, such as new potatoes and up-market designation of origin olive oil.

As was pointed out, it was not feasible for an island of Mallorca’s size, with only a certain percentage of usable agricultural land, to supply all residents as well as all the tourists. The Asaja agricultural businesses association explained that part of the problem, in addition to available land, was the absence of large greenhouses.

This meant and means an almost total reliance on the import of fruit and vegetables in winter. Moreover, and come March, potatoes are imported because new potato varieties for export do not suit local “gastronomic tastes”.

The Farmers Union, meanwhile, was critical of an island hotel sector and what it claimed was “zero consumption of local products”. Other voices suggested that supermarket chains were supplying less local product (they in fact sell some 50% of the total). As a consequence, a weather event like Storm Gloria could result in the occasional shortage.

The pandemic, as the ministry discovered in its study, had altered consumer habits, even if - as Asaja had noted - buying zero-kilometre local product came third behind price and quality in terms of priority. And price was an especially relevant factor, as costs of production were up to 25% higher than on the mainland.

But while consumers may have increased their purchases of local products, what about the hotel and restaurant sectors? The Farmers Union was overstating the case, as there clearly was local consumption. The agriculture ministry’s figures from April 2021 indicated that 22% of local production was for restaurants. Separate ministry figures estimated 27% for the tourism sector as a whole; rather more than zero, therefore.

When it came to food self-sufficiency capacity, the ministry had calculated, the Balearic Islands could support around 11.6% of needs. In Mallorca, there was self-sufficiency in just two agri-food products - nuts and potatoes. Even then, as Asaja had noted, potatoes were being imported in order to satisfy local tastes.

The pandemic and climate change have been factors motivating zero-kilometre consumption, but this is a consumption influenced by production capacity and the costs of this production. Into the mix now comes the Balearic government’s tourism decree, a “priority area” of which is “the consumption of zero-kilometre products, expressed as a percentage of the total spending by a hotel establishment on food and drink”.

Joan Trian Riu is the managing director of Riu Hotels & Resorts, one of Mallorca’s ‘big four’ hotel groups. In general terms, he is supportive of the government’s decree, noting that his company is one among other hotel chains to have already embarked on the circularity requirements. But he doesn’t agree with it all. There are aspects which are “nice to talk about but more difficult to fulfil”. And one of these would be making all food local. “We don’t have enough production in Mallorca for all food to be local. We couldn’t supply the whole hotel sector or the resident population.”

He is quite plainly right and is not the only hotel representative to have dismissed as unrealistic any idea that there could somehow be total zero-kilometre consumption. Garden Hotels, who are in the vanguard of the circularity movement and have supply agreements with island producers, have said that it would be impossible and unfeasible. What can be done is to adapt menus to seasonal products, and when there are greater quantities of these, they are cheaper.

Up to 80% of agri-food being imported, it was concluded at the time of Storm Gloria, and the government seems to want all hotel food to be local. Or that’s Joan Trian Riu’s reading of the situation. A nice idea, but a seemingly unattainable one.