Agriculture is about food security, not just ‘folklore’

At this juncture it is crucial to stop regarding agriculture as merely ‘folklore’ and instead start considering rural development as a key factor in the country’s social and economic development.

The Malta AgriFair 2022 - a national event organised by the Ministry for Agriculture, to promote local produce in the agricultural and fisheries sectors – could not have been more appropriately timed.

For we are living in an age when the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and now the war in the Ukraine, have all exposed the sheer fragility of international supply chains: underscoring the critical importance of having a vibrant and forward-looking agricultural sector, that can offer the country a modicum of food security.

Apart from the fact that local produce carries a smaller carbon footprint, than fruits and vegetables imported from overseas: increasing reliance on local food supplies would also help to insulate the country from global food-supply problems.

And while Malta cannot ever be fully self-sufficient, having a strong local agricultural sector remains vital, not just to safeguard our landscapes and rural identity; but also in terms of food security and affordability.

It is noteworthy that a recent study of food pricehikes, conducted by Caritas, found that the Ta’ Qali farmers’ market was among the cheapest sources of fruit and vegetables, compared to chain supermarkets and locality grocery vendors. This is largely because the prices do not include transportation costs, a well as cuts by various intermediaries in the supply-chain.

Moreover, during the pandemic a number of farmers also responded to consumer needs by offering novel services, such as delivering produce directly to households. Apart from the convenience aspect, this has also served to create a more direct link between producer and consumer.

Yet in order to prosper, the local agricultural sector also needs a forward-looking vision.

To be fair, the recent appointment of Alicia Bugeja Said, as Parliamentary Secretary for Fisheries, Aquaculture and Animal Rights within the Agriculture Ministry, does suggest that this administration is keen on invigorating the sector. But it is far from enough, on its own.

If government truly intends to revitalise Maltese agriculture, it should start by immediately halting any further destruction of agricultural land in the name of ‘road-widening’, and other such infrastructural projects.

Indeed, the current spike in food prices should in itself be a wake-up call, to this effect.

At a time of rising food costs, and uncertainty of supply, it clearly unwise to sacrifice agricultural land for any reason whatsoever: least of all, for speculative development, or – equally scandalous – for its re-utilisation for other ‘recreational’ purposes.

And while renewable energy should play a key role in the renewal of this sector, it does not make much sense to build solar farms on agricultural land, either: in a country where land is already so scarce.

This is why the Planning Authority was right to refuse a permit for such a large solar farm complex – roughly the size of six football grounds – in rural Mġarr.

In this sense, the Rural Policy needs to be revised to ensure that it directly benefits active farmers: instead of simply encouraging them to sell their land to commercial interests, as is the case today.

But the agriculture sector faces other stumbling blocks: including that the farming community itself is an ageing, inward looking one. This is further compounded by the fact that it is difficult for young farmers to buy their own land.

It is also imperative that the farmers themselves cooperate with each other – ideally, through synergy with other professionals: including experts in marketing and agribusiness – to overcome the inevitable problems of economies of scale.

In this respect, organisations like the MaYA Foundation and the Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi are doing sterling work: not just in giving a voice to farmers, but also in promoting new, sustainable and dynamic agricultural practices.

But farmers also have to do their own bit, to regain public trust. A recent damning report by the European Commission, for instance, denounced the complete absence of sanctions against the misuse of pesticides. According to the 2020 report, some 10% of samples taken from domestically-grown products revealed exceedances of maximum pesticide residue levels in treated crops (MRL), while in 2019 these were almost 15%. This is much higher than the EU average level, which amounted to 2.7%.

One major problem is that, due to the small size of the Maltese market, whenever the European Union decides to ban a specific pesticide from the market, local distributors end up with stockpiles of the banned product. Moreover, pesticide manufacturers often decide not to register their new products in Malta, due to its small market.

This is why government needs to be proactive in securing the registration of compliant products in the local market. But farmers themselves should be less defensive, when faced with such reports.

For ultimately, offering quality produce is key to gaining the trust of the public, which is (rightly) becoming more and more concerned about food security.

In fact, at this juncture it is crucial to stop regarding agriculture as merely ‘folklore’; and instead, to start considering rural development as a key factor in the country’s social and economic development.

This was, indeed, the idea behind the Malta AgriFair 2022, to begin with; clearly, however, we still have a lot of work to do.