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Foods and Wines from Spain. Everything you should know about Spanish food. >> Organic products
Foods From Spain: Organic Products, International Movements, Individual Choice

Foods From Spain: Organic Products, International Movements, Individual Choice

Broadly speaking, foodstuffs described in Spanish as ‘ecológicos’, ‘biológicos’ or ‘orgánicos’ are, fundamentally, foods obtained without the use of any chemical products and without any sort of genetic modification – in other words, by completely natural processes.

Organic food regulations in Spain

Organic foods are sometimes confused with foods described as ‘naturales’, a designation that indicates only that they are not genetically engineered (‘transgenic’) foods: chemical fertilizers and pesticides may have been used to produce them. However, the differences between them are encapsulated in regulations: in Spain, since 2007, foods are only recognized as ‘ecológicos’ (organic) once they have been certified as complying with EU Council regulation CE 834/2007 relating to the production and labeling of organic products, while ‘natural’ products do not meet any official quality regulation and are not governed by any identification or monitoring regulations.

For example, the CAAE (Andalusian Committee for Ecological Agriculture), the body responsible for certification in Spain’s most productive Autonomous Community of foods of this type (Andalusia accounts for nearly 50% of the national total), defines organic products as being “obtained by production methods designed to protect the environment, fertility of the soil, rural development and animal welfare. Their production methods exclude the use of synthetic chemical substances, such as pesticides, herbicides and other additives, do not use genetically modified varieties, and promote the use of native varieties, seeking to obtain the best yield from biological cycles in a sustainable way”.

Nevertheless, keeping processes absolutely natural (unaided by synthetic substances) throughout the production cycle of a particular foodstuff requires organic foods to be defined much more broadly. The fact of observing organic production regulations during the entire production, manufacturing, transforming and packing process implies a return to traditional production and manufacturing methods. Various measures provide better protection for the environment through the use of non-polluting techniques and substances which, as opposed to intensive farming and stock-breeding, are not just aimed at increasing production but rather at improving sustainability throughout the agri-food system.

Furthermore, the fact that compliance with the regulations governing foods of this type is checked by the appropriate inspection and certification bodies (in Spain, these are the Regulatory Councils and the relevant administrative bodies attached to each region or autonomous community) means that these foods come with a high quality guarantee.

All in all, the aim of organic eating is for food to be healthier and for it to be obtained by environmentally-friendly means. This entails using techniques (e.g. companion and rotated crops, vegetable-matter mulches that prevent erosion and contribute nutrients…) and fertilizers that are not only non-polluting but also play their part in saving energy, reducing the use of potentially harmful inorganic and synthetic substances, thereby preventing over-use and pollution of natural resources (and phenomena such as soil erosion and salinity, loss of agricultural diversity, depletion of aquifers, environmental pollution, superbugs, and so on...).

18th c. origins

In modern times, our whole concept of what constitutes health has shifted, as has our attitude towards eating vegetables. From the mid -18th century on, a hygienist movement took shape in Europe (one of many Enlightenment-inspired ideas) whose tenets linked the environment and eating habits of a person with his physical and emotional well-being. This theory gained particular credence after 1790, when ‘The People’s Misery: Mother of Diseases’, an influential work about public health written by German doctor Johann Peter Frank (1745-1821) was published. Hygienism appeared in Spain in the 1830s, having been introduced, along with other liberal ideas, by María Ruíz de Luzuriaga (1763-1822) and Mateo Seoane Sobral (1791-1871), both doctors, and two of the latter’s disciples, Pedro Felipe Monlau (1808-1871) and Francisco Méndez Álvaro (1806-1883), acquiring impetus in the 1870s with the publication of works by Dr.Rafael Rodríguez 1.Méndez (1845-1919).

Hygienist theories

Hygienist theories

Hygienist theories embraced the classist notion that personal status presupposes particular dietary habits; meat-eating was considered a sign of civilization, but was also thought to be more suitable for dwellers in cold regions than in hot ones, for whom a higher intake of vegetable foods was 2.advised. In parallel, a vegetarian movement emerged in the latter half of the 19th century: this had been gestating in Germany since the 18th century, fuelled by such books as Macrobiotics (1796) by Cristoph Wilhelm Hufeland (1762 – 1836) and The Natural Diet, the Diet of the Future (1857), by Theodor Hahn (1824 – 1883). In 1858, Lorenz Gleich (1798-1865) coined the word Naturheilkunde meaning naturist medicine. Later, Edouard Baltzer (1814-1887) founded Germany’s first vegetarian association, which presented vegetarianism as some sort of cure for society’s moral and economic 3.ills.

Vitamins, calories and the American middle class

Further change was brought about by progress in the field of medicine, again from the late 18th century on, with the discovery of the role of vitamin deficiency in certain illnesses and, later, of the presence of those vitamins in specific foods. A varied diet in which fruit and vegetables featured more prominently therefore came to be considered desirable. All these influences, along with a gradual move away from the traditional diet, altered eating habits and resulted in fruit and vegetable consumption doubling in the course of the 19th century, and then doubling again in the first half of the 20th century 4.alone.

Based on the earliest, European theories regarding the quest for a healthier way of eating, a dietary reform movement emerged in the United States during the 1830s and 1840s which combined “pseudo-scientific advice – such as avoiding certain foods supposed to have been scientifically declared harmful – and [...] aspirations towards moral 5.purity”. Its most famous proponent was the Reverend William Sylvester Graham (1795-1851), a Protestant preacher and vegetarian influenced by vitalist ideas imported from France. He was primarily opposed to the consumption of alcohol, stimulants, meat and spices. Graham treated all foods that had been modified from their natural state with suspicion, hence his particular crusade against refined flour: wholemeal flour and its benefits were one of the main hobby-horses of his cause.

The dietary reform movement that emerged around the turn of the 20th century was also constructed upon supposedly scientific ideas about health, but these were always closely allied to the nation’s 5.morals. It was at this period that tables expressing the energy value of foods in calories (discovered around that time) began to be compiled. Although the movement’s theories were initially aimed at the working class, it was to find its true adherents among the middle classes in North America: interestingly, the chief heir to Graham’s theories was Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943), head of the famous vegetarian ‘sanatorium’ at Battle Creek (Michigan) and, with his brother, the co-inventor of corn flakes. His work was influential in at least one area: a new kind of medical specialist – the dietician – came into being, and between them, dieticians and the middle classes succeeded in winning acceptance for the idea of moderation in eating being good for one’s health.

Spain’s first vegetarian society

Spain’s first vegetarian society

In the closing decades of the 19th century, Spanish author and free-thinker Rosario de Acuña (1850-1923), who was also an accomplished naturalist and avicultural expert, expressed the belief that society needed to be regenerated by a return to the countryside and a rural Spain’s first vegetarian society was formed between March and April 7.1903: its prime movers were José Calderón, Juan Padrós and Antonia Pineyro, and it was closely allied to the promotion of naturist medicine. Also, in 1907, Enrique Jaramillo published Renovación científica española (Spanish Scientific Renewal), the first book of Spain’s naturist movement . In 1908, Jaime Santiveri de Piníes (1861-1938) and Dr Joseph Falp i Plana (1878-1913) founded the Lliga Vegetariana de Catalunya (Vegetarian League of Catalonia). That same year, La Revista Vegetariana, the first vegetarian magazine in Spain, was published and Jaime Santiveri was its editor.

Labor movement in Spain and healthy food

From the start of the 20th century on, trophology began to gain support in Spain: like other naturist and vegetarian tendencies, this one had probably been introduced via the Ateneos Libertarios - cultural and educational institutions allied to the anarcho-syndicalist labor movement that spread widely, particularly at the time of the Second Spanish Republic (1931-1936) that preceded the Spanish Civil War (1936- 1939), whose aim was to create a new world that was more united, egalitarian, ecologically aware, free and fair.

Trophology (from the Greek trofos, meaning ‘nutrition’) is the study of the therapeutic properties of foods; trophotherapy is a treatment that aims to regulate the patient’s organic functions by means of a natural, balanced diet. Dr. José Antonio E. de Castro y Blanco (1890-1981) was one of the leading specialists in this field from the 1930s on, and indeed for much of the 20th century; a committed exponent of vegetarianism, naturism and trophological therapy, his published works include La nueva ciencia de comer y Tratado completo de cocina vegetariana eutrofológica, (The New Science of Eating and Complete Treatise on Eutrophic Vegetarian Cookery) (Mauccis, Barcelona, s. f.) and Qué y cómo debemos comer. Compendio de la nueva ciencia de comer (What and How to Eat. Compendium of the New Science of Eating) (Valencia, 1962).

20th c. counter-culture movements

The first vitamins, and their structure, were discovered from 1909 on, and the study of them and their connection with food exerted considerable influence over much of the nutritional advice issued by doctors in subsequent decades, and also resuscitated some 19th century ideas reappraised in the light of this new information. However, what amounted to an obsession with vitamins in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s led to their being ingested in the form of vitamin pills. Meanwhile, complacent in their ultra-modernity, the United States became increasingly lax about the use of additives in foodstuffs, which became ever more vivid in color, smell and taste. Not until the 1970s, a more self-critical period in North America, was legislation passed to control additive use.

This newly critical, rebellious attitude also gave rise to the fashionable counter-culture of which the hippie movement and vegetarianism were part and parcel, as was the preference for ‘biological’ and ‘natural’ 8.foods that is still with us today. Essentially, these represent a resurgence of the 19th century ideas that equated health with morality, albeit with the moral facet now viewed through an ethical prism more concerned with the environment than with religion.

By the first half of the 20th century, various movements were taking shape with the aim of solving the problems of intensive agriculture (then in its infancy, and practiced only in highly industrialized countries) and its apparently limitless production. Concerns were raised particularly after Mexico’s so-called ‘green revolution’ of 1943, when agricultural production was greatly increased by the use of such modern techniques as genetic selection and intensive, irrigated crop-growing using fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides in massive quantities.

Biodynamics and permaculture in Spain

Biodynamics and permaculture in Spain

Among the most important movements of the 20th century, certain schools of thought stand out. One of these was ‘biodynamic agriculture’ (developed by Austrian Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) after serving as consultant during the agrarian reforms undertaken by Germany in 1924. The concept was based on anthroposophy, a philosophical doctrine aimed at achieving global understanding of mankind and the world) according to whose tenets certain chemical fertilizers, and their use since the late 19th century, were harmful to health and should be substituted by a return to natural nutrients; another was biological, organic or bio-organic agriculture (more scientific, created by the pioneering Swiss couple, Hans (1891-1988) and Maria (1894-1969) Muller, and German doctor Hans-Peter Rusch (1906-1977) from 1951 on); also interesting were natural agriculture or permaculture (propounded by Japanese Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008) in the late 1970s), and agro-ecology (a movement born in the course of the 20th century in the American universities out of the interchange of opinions between researchers and peasant farmers in Latin America). All shared the common principle of treating the land, surroundings and environment with 9.respect.

One pioneer, who put these theories into practical application in Spain (more specifically, in Cubelles, Barcelona) in the mid-1960s, was Serafín Sanjuán. While in France, he had met Jean Marie Roger and Xavier Florin, whose approach to this agricultural revolution was essentially a spiritual one. Sanjuan’s translations of their writings and those of others, such as Claude Aubert, provided the foundations on which Spain’s ecological agriculture could build. #19.7#Another contributor was the Colectivo Vida Sana (Healthy Living Collective) in Catalonia (1975), one of the first voices (along with Integral magazine, founded in 1978) to speak out in the media the virtues of agrochemical-free agriculture. It was later constituted as Asociación Vida Sana (Healthy Living Association) in 10.1980. Also from the 1960s on, various authors – among them Domingo García Bellsolá - published books extolling the virtues of a vegetarian

Intensive farming vs. traditional methods in Spain

Intensive farming, understood as exemplifying ‘economy of scale’, has continued to be practiced in Spain up to the present day. As in many other countries, attempts have been made to push it to the extreme, alongside a major chemical and technological revolution that has made it possible to grow any species of fruit or vegetable intensively (using chemical fertilizers), at any time of year (using greenhouses), for them to be long-lasting (thanks to calculated use of industrial chilling), and to create specific varieties to match consumer demand (using increasingly sophisticated genetic engineering methods).

From the 1970s, and particularly from the late 80s on, the economic model in application split into two divergent tendencies: one sector of farming and stock-breeding veered towards reinstating the ‘economy of quality’ model, which aims not for standardized mass consumption but rather for heterogeneity and individualism, with quantity less important than quality.

By the same token, the appeal of the ‘artificial’ exerted by the ‘modern’ model that had been so successful in the 1950s and 60s began to undergo modification in the latter part of the 20th century, especially from the 1990s on, when a small part of the agri-food sector sought to reinstate the link between farming and nature, producer and consumer, with a view to producing in ways that were more ‘authentic’ and ‘traditional’.

In fact, in many parts of Spain, traditional farming and livestock breeding were still very much alive, the intensive approach to agriculture and stock-breeding never having been adopted. In part, this was due to the fact that the revolution in farming and stockbreeding methods did not reach Spain until the 1960s. Furthermore, small scale holdings (minifundios) still represented the predominant agricultural pattern in half of Spain’s territory; in stock-breeding, sheep and goats were, for the most part, still raised extensively, whereas industrial stock-breeding of cows and pigs began to show signs of flagging between 1975 and 1985, a mere 15 years after its 12.adoption.

20th c. organic farming in Spain

In Spain, then, the organic farming phenomenon is perceived as being closely linked with the concept of quality and with the ever more specific regulations designed to protect the distinctive characteristics of this type of 13.product. Some commentators are of the opinion that Spain’s emphasis on situating organic foodstuffs in the top-of-the-range bracket has for years obfuscated the ecological credentials of ‘biological’ or ‘organic’ foods and their relevance in the wider ethical and environmental 14.picture.

Towards the end of 1987, a Proyecto de Reglamento (set of Draft Regulations) was drawn up concerning the definition, production and monitoring of products entitled to be covered by the Agricultura Ecológica denomination. In parallel, negotiations were conducted with pre-existing associations and users of the denominations orgánico, biológico and biodinámico for their products. This draft became Real Decreto 759/ 1988, though its resources were still very limited.

The formation of various regional organic farmers’ associations made it necessary to create a state organization that was independent of them. This was the reason behind the setting up of the CRAE (Consejo Regulador de la Agricultura Ecológica/ Regulatory Council for Ecological Farming), a branch of the Ministry of Agriculture’s INDO (Instituto Nacional de Denominaciones de Origen/ National Institute for Designations of Origin) in 1988. The 1990s saw major advances in organic farming as a consequence of the regional governments’ acquiring responsibility for grants for production, research and training directly related to organic 15.farming.

From 1991 on, the territorial committees attached to each Autonomous Community engineered the demise of the CRAE and its replacement by a new, consultative, organization - the Comisión Reguladora de la Agricultura Ecológica/ Regulatory Commission for Organic Agriculture).

Even so, considerable confusion persisted for many years regarding the use of the terms ‘bio’ and ‘biológico’ to describe non-organic foods. It was sorted out by new European regulations, dated 14th July 2005, which restrict the use of the terms ‘bio’, ‘biológico’, ‘eco’, ‘ecológico’, ‘org’ and ‘orgánico’ to foodstuffs that comply with all regulations governing organic foods currently in force. For an agricultural product to qualify as organic in Spain, official bodies have to verify that seeds, soils, water, fertilizers and harvesting and storage processes comply with the strict Spanish and European regulations concerning the criteria for organic production. Spain occupies the third place in the EU as regards area given over to organic crops (1.317.752 acres in 2008, according to Spanish Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Foods data) and also for volume of organic foodstuffs produced. However, because over 80% of this production goes for export, priority is now being given to promoting domestic consumption of organic foods.

The link that existed historically between organic food production and vegetarianism has now been severed; both organic milk and lactic derivatives and organic meat must be obtained from animals fed on agricultural products that meet all regulations pertaining to organic products for human consumption. Furthermore, they must have been bred naturally, with concern for the animals’ health, and veterinary medicines being used only when absolutely necessary. Organic meat producers themselves are opposed to intensive production methods and genetic manipulation, and favor homeopathic and phytotherapeutic treatment for their animals. The transport and slaughtering of animals are governed by ethical rules that ensure that they suffer as little as possible. Even the packaging in which these foods are sold, and that comes into direct contact with them, must be made out of organic products. The effect of food-related alarms (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, aviar influenza…), along with an ever-increasing realization of the risk to health posed by over-use of chemical substances in food, plus growing social awareness of animal welfare and environmental issues, seem to indicate that production and consumption of organic products are likely to keep on growing in the years to come.


Enrique García Ballesteros, (BA in Early Modern and Modern History and MA in Communication and Journalism) is a Spanish historian, writer and journalist. He has published over a hundred scientific and general interest articles on history and the media in prestigious magazines such as Historia National Geographic and La Aventura de la Historia. He has also authored biographies, interviews and book reviews for major institutions and the Spanish press. He is a regular contributor to the Spanish national daily newspapers El Mundo and Público (now online version only).

Research coordination: María del Carmen Simón Palmer, has a phD in history and is a research professor at the Spanish National Research Council, CSIC. She is a member of the governing body of the Real Academia de Gastronomía. Her published works include: La cocina de Palacio (1591-1932), (Castalia, 1997) and Bibliografía de la Gastronomía y Alimentación en España, (Trea 2003).

Hawys Pritchard, M.A. (University of London) is a freelance translator currently based in Wales and Mallorca. Her work has appeared in various books and magazines (including Spain Gourmetour) that reflect her interest in food, wine, travel, art and architecture.

Photo credits

Organic food regulations in Spain
Las cuatro estaciones: otoño. The four seasons: autumn. Francisco Barrera (1595-1658), Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla, Spain. Photo by Pepe Morón.

Hygienist theories
Eduard Baltzer (1814-1887) founder of the first German Vegetarian Society. Licensed under PDCreative Commons by Spinoziano.

Spain's first vegetarian society
First Santiveri store in Barcelona. Courtesy of Santiveri Historical Archive.

Biodynamics and permaculture in Spain
Rudolf Steiner, ca 1905. Licensed under PDCreative Commons by Conny