Recent Eurostat statistics do not provide encouraging reading for Malta’s agricultural sector. Income in the sector declined by 9.4 per cent between 2016 and 2017, and it has fallen by about a third since 2010. Finland and Slovenia had similar declines to Malta’s, but countries such as Germany, Luxembourg, Ireland and Lithuania had impressive rises ranging from 20 to 35 per cent.

While Malta and Ireland are the only two EU member states where the work force has not declined over just more than a decade, Malta’s agricultural workforce is the third lowest in the EU. Besides, only six per cent of farmers in the country are female – the second lowest in the bloc.

Another significant statistic states that Malta was one of the EU countries with strong contractions in investment growth, averaging minus 6.8 per cent yearly since 2009.

Environmental NGO Friends of the Earth also provides interesting data through its AgroKantina report and its participation in the EU Citizen’s Cap Project.

It states that there are 19,000 farmers, and the number of those working full-time is decreasing. Forty per cent of Malta’s land area can currently be classified as agricultural land. Seventy-six per cent of Maltese farms are micro-farms, being less than one hectare in area.

Indeed, Eurostat reminds us that Malta’s share of small farms is the highest of all EU member states (96.5 per cent). They are less than five hectares in area.

Friends of the Earth adds that 45 per cent of agricultural land is used for forage crops followed by other uses such as market agriculture (16 per cent), and kitchen gardens (12 per cent) respectively.

Agriculture may represent a small percentage of gross domestic product, but its strategic contribution to Maltese societyis priceless

Fifty-seven per cent of fruit grown in Malta are grapes, followed by oranges (12 per cent) and strawberries (nine per cent). The most popular ‘vegetable’ is the tomato (17 per cent), followed by potatoes (15 per cent) and others.

Given the declines in question, the small contribution to Malta’s economy (less than two per cent of GDP), and other social changes such as Malta’s urban sprawl, should we give up on agriculture? I hope not.

I subscribe to the perspective that believes that farmers deserve assistance and incentives so they can empower themselves and help protect Malta’s landscape. Malta’s EU membership was meant to bring about both challenges and opportunities to the sector, but is government giving the sector the importance it deserves? To give one example, why was the pitkali market reform stalled?

Besides, why are many farmers experiencing higher costs and lower profits? Why are they being denied forms of insurance for example against climatic changes? Why are they often subject to unfair competition and lack of consultation?

A sore point relates to EU funds.  Bureaucratic hurdles, long waits and lack of government prioritisation are often adding avoidable difficulties to farmers.

If Maltese policymakers decide to give local agriculture the importance it deserves, various reforms could be introduced.

First, planning policies should protect rural land and encourage farmersto use land for agricultural purposesrather than being constrained to sell it for other use.

Second, technical expertise and assistance should assist both the government and farmers on the best ways to apply and utilise EU and nationalfunds and to ensure sustainable agricultural methods.

The government should also increase transparency at the pitkali, simplify bureaucratic procedures, carry out extensive land surveys and enable farmers to have legal title to land so they can apply for funding opportunities. The government should also incentivise sustainable water use and animal welfare.

Malta also requires reforms which encourage market access for young farmers, and which enhance more participatory policy processes to farmers, scholars and civil society voices in the field.

On a European level, the Common Agricultural Policy also requires reform. From a Maltese perspective, I believe that one important point to mention is the specificity of small islands and small agricultural holdings. These should be factored in the policy process, as otherwise the CAP will keep being tilted in favour of big agro-business.

Agriculture may represent a small percentage of gross domestic product, but its strategic contribution to Maltese society is priceless. This is another area which is crying for political consensus.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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