Agriculture may be the most taken-for-granted industry on the island. Why shouldn’t it be when Malta has become almost completely dependent on imported food? Both the supermarkets and your local grocer are stuffed with fruit, vegetables, meats and dairy from nearby Sicily and even faraway China, rendering a lot of local produce – except to those who seek it out specifically – a near irrelevance. If local farmers were to cease all supply today, we would still survive very well indeed.
Not so, however, the other way around. It seems the realisation has not yet sunk in that dependence on imported food is a strategic weakness for a country. It would be a serious threat to our wellbeing if some natural or man-made crisis were to cause overseas supplies to dry up. It’s as if August 15, 1942, when Malta was saved from the brink of war-induced starvation, never happened.
Other countries are working towards strengthening their food security, such as Qatar (which is battling a blockade from neighbouring Gulf states) and Singapore. Even if only for this reason, Malta needs to have a close look at the sector with a view to reversing its gradual but steady decline.
Instead, we have tales of farmers wanting to give up in the face of myriad difficulties and the younger of them seeing no future at all in tilling the soil. The sector is hampered by multiple economic, legal, social and marketing obstacles. Given the generally high quality of local produce, it should be enjoying much more success.
One major obstacle to a thriving agriculture industry is that the value chain for local crops is controlled by middlemen in the Pitkalija system, which lacks any traceability and transparency. This means the farmer often receives a pittance that hardly covers the basic cost of cultivation.
There are huge gaps in information without which proper planning is impossible. If it is not known what the population is eating, then it is hard to plan production. If it is not known which farmers own which land, how much water and fertiliser each crop uses, what crops farmers are growing, and so on, governance and management are made all the more difficult.
The sector is beset by paucity of research and lack of expertise. Without research, farmers cannot be offered alternatives to the difficulties they encounter, and without experts they have no one to refer to if they have production problems or if they want to try new or alternative methods of production.
This situation tends to lead to regulation before education. Take, for example, the action programme on nitrates. To reduce nitrate pollution in groundwater – a needed measure – the programme is very strict on farmers’ use of fertilisers, which are, however, essential for good crop production. This action was put in place without the country having researched any alternatives or educated farmers on how to cope.
The same has happened with pesticides. Farmers are being encouraged to use less and are heavily penalised if they exceed maximum levels. Again, however, no research or educational initiatives were carried out on alternatives.
Farmers do not have access to advice on how to diversify their business, such as by branching out into agri-tourism or providing tours or school visits. Surely there would be a healthy demand for services like this which could help sustain the core business of crop production.
Much potential is also being lost in the failure of enterprises to tap local produce from farmers for processing, packaging and selling, in this way linking the producer to the retailer and consumer. Whenever that has occurred, the particular sector was strengthened, such as in the cultivation of tomatoes for processing or potatoes for export.
This means that the local product is undervalued. It does not help that local gastronomic and culinary priorities favour convenience over freshness, quantity over quality, and foreign cuisine over local – we probably eat more baked beans than broad beans, more cheddar than ġbejniet.
The heavy reliance on imports extends beyond the food itself into what is needed to produce it: seeds, fertiliser, plant protection products and animal feed. This renders prices volatile, especially in the animal husbandry sector.
The final nail in the coffin of farming is most likely to come from the usurpation of fertile land for leisure purposes, infrastructural projects and other non-agriculture activities. More and more land is being abandoned and speculated. Prompted by rising values and the increasing ease with which permits can be obtained, land owners who have leased their land to farmers are wanting it back.
Farmers do very hard manual work in poor conditions with not much earnings to show for it at the end of the day. One by one, they are giving up and not many of their sons and daughters are enticed to follow in their parents’ footsteps, while very few new farmers dare try their hand in these most challenging of times.
If there is one sector worth saving it is this one. Not only is the food of our land part of our identity as a nation, it could one day be our salvation.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial
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