Updated 8.20pm

Non-EU food products should be blocked from entering Malta if local supply meets demand, farmers have proposed.

The government should negotiate with the EU to get the clearance to do that, Malcolm Borg of Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi said.

Farmers also want government subsidies on fertilisers, fodder and the cost of importing feeds, among other things.

The proposals were presented during a national protest held by farmers on Thursday, which began with a convoy of tractors making their way from Ta’ Qali to the Valletta waterfront area.

It was the farmers’ second demonstration in as many weeks and one of a series of farmers' protests across European capitals. On Wednesday, farmers in Spain parked their tractors in central Madrid, Italian farmers staged a protest at Rome's Circus Maximus and others in Greece blocked roads with their tractors. 

While the first Maltese event focused on expressing anger at EU laws and policies they say are hurting local agriculture, Thursday’s event was intended to present proposals on how to improve things.

Demonstrators presented five key requests:

1. Block imports of unnecessary non-EU foodstuffs. Farmers want the government assess which non-EU foodstuffs are competing directly with local equivalents, and to restrict their import if local supply can satisfy demand. They acknowledge this will to be discussed at EU level first.

2. More stringent testing of non-EU food products. Farmers say their products must meet a much higher bar than those they are being undercut by.

3. Subsidies on fertilizers, animal fodder and the costs of local feeds.

4. A stop to any further EU rules that encourage land to remain fallow. Farmers say this is “absurd” in a country with limited agricultural land like Malta. Existing regulations concerning fallow land should reward farmers more than non-farmers who own land, they say.

5. Blocking EU laws that can influence local agriculture from being implemented until there is enough proof that impacts will be negligible. Farmers cited laws arising from the European Green Deal or laws to end cage farming for chickens as cases in point.

"The government might need to stamp its feet but they should," Borg of the Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi said. 

Blocking the importation of select non-EU foodstuffs is likely to cross a red line for Brussels, given that EU member states agree to form part of a single market as a precondition for being members. 

Halting or delaying select EU laws on the basis of national circumstances, while difficult, is potentially more achievable: the EU regularly grants member states derogations to specific regulations.  

Borg said farmers had chosen to hold the protest at the Valletta waterfront, close to where the Virtu Ferries catamaran from Sicily docks, as a symbolic gesture.

"Here is where most of the (imported) food arrives in Malta. Can we keep depending so much on importation and dismissing local produce?" he asked.

Borg argued that importers of non-EU goods are also selling local consumers inferior products.

He alleged that Argentinian beef exported to France is then repackaged and sent to Malta after its initial expiry date.

"They just change the packaging with a new expiry date," he said.

"The Environmental Health Directorate, the Plant Health directorate and the Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority all play a very important role in this," Borg said.

To make their point, farmers stopped at the MCCAA's Floriana headquarters on their way to Valletta.

They taped signs that said "we are here to safeguard their food" and "no farmers no food no future before" moving on to Valletta on their tractors.

Borg was the last of several food producers who spoke at the end of the protest.

Gerald Vella, who spoke on behalf of vineyard owners, said the farmland to grow grapes has declined by 70 per cent when compared to 20 years ago.

Much of that is because of uncontrolled imports, he said.

Speaking on behalf of vegetable and fruit-producing farmers, Alex Tabone said non-EU countries can import cheap produce because they receive a lot of government assistance.

In the EU that cannot happen because of state aid rules, he said, noting such farmers also face less stringent regulations.

"Those farmers are not hampered by limits on the fertilizer they can use. They are free to use harmful chemicals that were banned in the EU 20 years ago".

"We are not afraid of EU produce, because we have a high-quality product and we can compete. But we can't compete with third countries," Tabone said.

Among those hearing farmers and their concerns were Agriculture Minister Anton Refalo, Parliamentary Secretary Alicia Bugeja Said and Opposition Leader Bernard Grech.

The government has said that it has sympathy for farmers and pledged to advocate on their behalf within the EU's halls of power. 

In comments to Times of Malta, Refalo insisted that the government had never backed EU laws that damaged farmers' interests. Grech argued the opposite and said that even if the government was powerless to stop such laws, it had a duty to intervene to protect local farmers. 

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