Organic farming is more than simply not using pesticides: it is an approach that respects the natural environment. Organic farmer Joe Sciberras tells Veronica Stivala why he made the switch.

Joe Sciberras. Photo: Matthew MirabelliJoe Sciberras. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

One day, Joe Sciberras and his young son were picking strawberries from their field. When they were ready, the father warned his son to wash the strawberries before eating them to get rid of the toxins. To this, his son replied: “We know we need to wash our fruit, but what about people who don’t know and are eating the fruit without washing it properly?”

“That was my wake-up call to switch to organic farming,” says Sciberras, recalling the incident that happened some 10 years ago. Never keen on using too many pesticides, Sciberras decided to make the switch to organic farming.

Having completed the necessary certification, Sciberras started making the necessary changes to go organic. After around two years, he was audited and deemed a certified organic farmer.

Sciberras accompanies me on a walk around his fields, which stretch for 10 hectares in Mizieb, near Manikata, while explaining the various techniques and processes involved in organic farming. As we pass the olive trees he tells me of his concoction of honey, cola and Bovril which he uses to trap the flies that would otherwise harm his crop. He proudly shows me some grapes which will ripen in a few months, along with fennel, tomatoes, aubergines, leeks, kale, butternut squash, green peppers, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, beetroots, cucumbers and string beans that grow on his land.

Put simply, organic farming is an agricultural system that seeks to provide the consumer with fresh, tasty and authentic food while respecting natural lifecycle systems.

John Portelli, from the Malta Organic Agriculture Movement, says how contrary to popular belief, organic farming is not simply farming without pesticides. Organic agriculture takes a more holistic approach to respecting the natural environment. Organic agriculture stems from four principles – health, ecology, fairness and care.

The principle of health means that organic agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible. Also, organic agriculture should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate and help sustain them.

In terms of fairness, organic agriculture should build on relationships that ensure fairness to the common environment and life opportunities. As for care, organic agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment.

Typical organic farming practices include: wide crop rotation, very strict limits on chemical synthetic pesticide and synthetic fertiliser use, livestock antibiotics, food additives and processing aids and other inputs; absolute prohibition of the use of genetically-modified organisms; taking advantage of on-site resources, such as livestock manure for fertiliser or feed produced on the farm; choosing plant and animal species that are resistant to disease and adapted to local conditions; raising livestock in free-range, open-air systems and providing them with organic feed; using animal husbandry practices appropriate to different livestock species.

Are there specific requirements for Malta?

Organic farming in Malta is regulated by the EU regulations. However, there are certain issues that are specific to Malta, including the fact that the temperature here never gets cold enough for certain insects to die, or that Malta is a very humid country and so specific measures need to be taken to deal with this condition.

Unfortunately local organic production is still very low as Malta never really had or implemented any incentives to support the local farming community to adopt organic farming.

“Malta ranks the lowest in the share of the organic area in the UAA in the EU member states. The percentage of certified organic land is a miserable 1.25 per cent when compared to the 22 per cent of the Netherlands,” notes Portelli.

The local demand for organic food is by far greater than the local supply of organic production. Due to this, organic products are being imported and you can find many certified organic products in local outlets.

Sciberras says the worrying reality is that farmers are getting old and that the 18,000 farmers we have today will amount to only 3,000 by 2020.

“A country cannot survive if it doesn’t grow its own food,” he warns, adding that “we cannot depend on imports”.

The problem is that as things stand, farmers are only receiving a small percentage of the profit made on their produce. Things need to change, says Sciberras, and farming needs to become a family business, with farmers understanding all aspects of running a business efficiently and profitably. Sciberras is currently in talks with the government to set up such educational facilities.

At the end of our tour, Sciberras presents me with a small supply of vegetables, which he had freshly picked in front of me. Following this eye-opening conversation, I am keen to see what all the fuss is about and rush home to make plates of cooked and raw salads. Even as I cook, the baby tomatoes quickly disappear as family members pick at the delicious food. As for the rest of the vegetables, what can I say? Nothing beats organic.

Why buy organic?

Better taste: Conservatives and preservatives alter the genuine taste of fruits and vegetables such as apples and carrots.

Better value for money: There are no hidden charges in the organic production system, unlike in conventional farming where hidden charges are postponed or shelved and surface later on.

No unwanted antibiotics: Meat and milk consumers have their mind at rest as dairy products are certified to be free from antibiotics, chemical residues and GM food.

Transparency: Consumers buy a certified product, which can be traced from farm to fork.

Animal welfare: Chickens are raised free range and extensive farming is certified.

Organic landscaping: Synthetic fertilisers and pesticides are forbidden and children and adults lying on certified organic lawns do not suffer from skin rashes due to the abolishing of chemical sprays.