Maltese fruits and vegetables have once again failed the highest number of pesticide tests in Europe, doubling the already worrying trend observed in previous years.
The latest pesticide test results, published by the European Food Safety Authority last week, show that more than one in 10 local greens taken to the lab in 2016 were sprayed with chemicals over the legal limit. The European average was five times lower.
Maltese produce actually fared twice as badly as in 2015, when the country was first singled out for high pesticide use.
Chemical residues in greens sold in Malta are tested randomly by the Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority at a number of different sites every year. Around a dozen farmers are currently facing charges in court after they were found to be using more than the legal amount of pesticides on their crops.
Health authorities have warned that the residues resulting from excessive pesticide use may pose a public health risk, but also insist it would require daily exposure to the chemicals to have any significant health impact.
The EU has regulations on the use of pesticides and maximum residue levels, which are meant to be followed by farmers in Malta.
Activists campaigning for the chemicals to be done away with say they have been linked to a wide variety of health hazards, from headaches and nausea to cancer and endocrine disruption.
According to the EFSA report, 178 samples were tested in Malta – 41 per 100,000 inhabitants. Three-quarters of the produce analysed had been grown locally, the highest rate in the EU. The Maltese authorities looked for more than 700 types of pesticides and tested for an average of 147 different chemicals in every sample of fruit and veg put under the microscope.
The EFSA said that residues exceeding the legal limits were linked to 56 different pesticides. A chemical called bromide – analysed in lettuce and tomatoes – was by far the pesticide most frequently detected.
Around three per cent of the EU’s apples also failed the test, one crate of which was from Malta. Similarly, three of the 11 European cabbage samples to fail were grown here.
Nearly half of the 23 peach samples found to have been exposed to an excess of chemical residue came from Malta
Approximately half of the 23 peach samples found to have been exposed to an excess of chemical residue also came from the island, as did a consignment of Maltese strawberries and two bags of juicy, red, Maltese tomatoes.
Maltese authorities have also been singled out for monitoring the equipment used to indiscriminately spray chemicals in fields across the island.
Earlier this year, the European Commission said Maltese and Cypriot farmers were the only ones in the EU not to have had their pesticide sprayers inspected by the authorities in 2016.
Caught in the crossfire
Sometimes, honest farmers get caught in the crossfire of the war on excessive pesticide use. Last year, Times of Malta reported that a strawberry farmer had his fruit confiscated and was barred from setting up his stall at the market after a UK lab found he was 10 times over the limit.
But it turned out the the lab had tested the wrong part of the fruit (the leaves) and also checked for the wrong type of chemical.
The use of foreign laboratories has long irritated the sellers, who argue that the wait for test results can mean their produce turns rotten before being given a clean bill of health.
On the positive side, Malta has also been singled out for some good practices, including having introduced rules that require farmers to inform their neighbours when they intend to spray pesticides.
The island was also among the countries that introduced guidelines for protecting agricultural workers from the adverse effects of pesticide application.
The Commission pointed out that Malta had no publicly funded systems in place for forecasting, warning and ensuring early diagnosis with regard to pest and disease control.
Nor were there established economic thresholds to help farmers with decision making when dealing with infestations.
IT tools were now available for such purposes on official websites, it noted.