Updated 1pm with MHRA statement

Michael Caruana has faced many challenges in his years of growing and exporting potatoes, but few have been as daunting as the prospect of being undercut by producers outside the EU. 

Caruana first came to national attention over a decade ago, when a video interview he gave about his dedication to agriculture went viral.

He has spent the ensuing years growing his potato business into a thriving one, and was one of many farmers who took to Malta's streets on Friday to join Europe-wide protests against EU rules they say are punishing them while helping non-EU farmers.

Mike Caruana speaks about the protest. Video: Karl Andrew Micallef

The EU has signed several free trade deals in the past years, effectively removing trade barriers for various non-EU products from countries such as Mexico, Vietnam and Ukraine. It has also introduced stricter regulations for European farmers, banning things like the use of antibiotics on livestock or the use of GMO crops. 

European farmers say the result is that their costs are up and farm production is down, while farmers in countries without such strict rules are being given free access to European consumers.  

Like the local farmers' association, Caruana thinks that is unfair. 

"Europe spent years getting to where it's at and banning dangerous chemicals. But agricultural products grown outside the EU can use those chemicals, and then be sold in Europe. We don't agree with that," he said as he drove his tractor to Floriana on Friday. 

Farmers in Floriana during Friday's demonstration. Photo: Matthew MirabelliFarmers in Floriana during Friday's demonstration. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Caruana said that his presence during Friday's protest was intended to signal to authorities that farmers' livelihoods need protecting - for their own sake and that of their children.

He now hopes his young daughter, who is still an infant, will eventually follow in his footsteps and enter the business. 

"Some people are surprised when I tell them that, because she's a girl. But she's got hands and a head like everyone else. I will encourage her to continue this work," he said. 

Friday's protest was led by Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi. On Saturday, Koperattivi Malta said it strongly endorsed the event and called for more inclusive dialogue with farmers.

"Koperattivi Malta should be at the table alongside all other social partners. Cooperative societies are an integral part of the socio-political ecosystem, and neglecting or omitting them from policy discussions disrupts this delicate balance," stated Daniel Schembri, CEO at Koperattivi Malta.

Friends of the Earth Malta also offered farmers its solidarity.

It warned policymakers to not use the protests as a pretence for smashing legislation aimed at ensuring sustainable practices.

“The anger of many farmers is legitimate. But after years of it being ignored by political leaders, it is now dangerously being exploited by populist parties and agro-industrial lobbies trying to shatter green objectives and commitments,” the NGO said.

The protest was also endorsed by the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association, which called on the government and Maltese MEPs to advocate on local farmers' behalf at EU level. 

"MHRA encourages active engagement at EU levels to champion local farmers' interests and implement policies supporting a sustainable and flourishing agricultural sector," it said in a statement on Saturday.  

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