In 2020, the National Statistics Office released a census about agriculture.

The figures emerging from the report make for unpleasant reading, enough to shock any administration into taking action: over the span of 10 years, the number of agricultural holdings decreased by 15 per cent; the amount of utilised area decreased by 6.2 per cent; livestock dwindled by up to 43.2 per cent; the labour force by 25 per cent.

Over half of the agricultural holdings have no succession plan in place.

The study was published in 2022 and those figures, by now, are already old.

A quick count of the planning applications approved on agricultural land in the last two years will show how more and more fertile land will be taken up by concrete as if the intensification of construction on farmland in the last 16 years has not wrought enough damage.

It is a shocking, but not surprising, state of affairs.

Prime Minister Robert Abela had given a sign of hope to many with the creation of a ministry for agriculture, which, together with the parliamentary secretariat for animal welfare, has yet to spring into action.

The law on land leases – which is supposed to put an end to the eviction of farmers, loopholes notwithstanding – was the only step in the right direction, which was never followed up.

In fact, the ministry has yet to make its voice heard on the rampant overdevelopment that invariably spills onto farmland.

There isn’t as much as a shred of policy when it comes to the preservation of fertile soil, one of our most prized – and limited – resources; indeed, there is no inclination to challenge the construction industry even on matters of national importance.

Incidentally, statistics, such as those published by the NSO, are often used as an excuse to develop farmland.

The reduction of farming activity, in between the ageing workforce and rising costs for farmers, has been used as a cover for speculators, who sometimes have less than orthodox methods of acquiring agricultural land.

Yet, despite repeated warnings, our authorities continue to govern without any vision, with a staggering belief in an economic model whose failings are already evident.

Shortly after the ports were closed because of the pandemic, the issue of national food-supply safety was raised. It was ushered out again quickly. After the invasion of Ukraine led to a worldwide shortage of grain, the government paid off-grain importers in order to keep food prices stable.

Despite the proliferation of supermarkets – also largely responsible for the take-up of farmland – the strength of our food supply chain remains tenuous at best.

While Malta and Gozo are not large enough to be fully subsistent, the swathes of unused agricultural land could be used to kickstart the production and storage of grain. This will not reduce our dependency on importations, but increased grain stocks could mitigate the impact of global shortages on our population.

Yet, the government prefers to throw money at a problem (and at business people) as a quick fix rather than tackle the issue at its root.

As a first step, it should ban the sale and conversion of agricultural land for recreational uses (it should also be investing in open spaces, but none are in sight); a deeper reform would see the government take stock of all the land it actually owns and co-owns and create incentives for the employment of people in the agricultural sector.

There has been much talk from Labour MPs about “changing the economic model”. When it comes to land use, including agricultural land, a change in mentality is much required: one whereby our national resources are not sold off to individuals but are put to the good use of the population.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us