The government urgently needs to invest in a well-equipped and accredited laboratory system to test local produce and to deliver results to farmers “in a timely and efficient manner”, according to the chairman of the National Hub for Ethnobotanical Research.

The use of pesticides in local produce has been the subject of much controversy in recent months, after an EU report placed Maltese fruit and veg at the top of the EU pesticides list. But Mario Gerada insists that, while true that pesticides are a major cause for concern, a holistic approach to tackle the problem is needed.

“We cannot demonise the farmer. As part of the Hub’s research, we have met with the farmers and listened to their concerns. With respect to pesticides, they brought up a number of issues, such as when are the crops sampled. And how? When and where are they tested?” Mr Gerada said.

READ: Authority's pesticide test was 'flawed' - Environment Ministry

The results of this series of meetings were then collated into a list of policy requests from the farmers, combined with recommendations by the Hub and presented to Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture Clint Camilleri. 

“The current system sees produce being tested for pesticides in a foreign laboratory, with the results taking about a year, give or take, to reach Malta. Whenever the tests reveal that any crops are too high in pesticides, that particular farmer’s produce is destroyed. But, in reality, the result would be referring to the previous year’s crop cycle. This does not make sense,” Mr Gerada said.

“Malta does not have any accredited labs to carry out the tests locally, and the expense to implement local testing would be considerable. But a solution needs to be found.”

It was “an objective fact” that some farmers were using pesticides excessively, he said, but one also had to investigate the reasons in order to tackle the root of the problem. “In reality the majority are abiding by pesticide regulations. It’s just a matter of getting everyone in line.”

The relationship between farmers and authorities has not always been “the best” possible, he admits, putting this down to heavy bureaucracy. And, while farmers need to comply with regulations, teaching them how best to comply with the system is imperative, he says.

“We need to depart from a position of care, as opposed to punishment. The industry was neglected for years, by all administrations, so the relationship between farmer and authorities needs to be rebuilt. No-one wants to eat pesticide-laden food, but a way needs to be found within a context of care.”

READ: How pesticides are monitored

One possible way of facilitating dialogue between farmers and government, Mr Gerada believes, would be to turn the government farm in Għammieri into a practical centre for research and dialogue in partnership with the farmers themselves.

“The idea would be to transform the farm into a space where farmers can present the difficulties they encounter in their day-to-day work in order to discuss possible solutions. Let us say that farmers encounter a new kind of insect that they don’t know how to eliminate. It is more likely that they figure out a way to solve the problem without resorting to excessive pesticides if they have other experts to discuss the issue with. L-Għammieri could serve as the base for these exchanges.”

Moreover, he continued, it was impossible to carry out a serious discussion about the use of pesticides without referring to the issue of traceability and imports.

“At present, there is no system of traceability. All produce should be labelled, traceable and identifiable, both for regulatory purposes and for the consumer. We need to introduce a certificate of production that identifies the country of origin and safe use of pesticides.”

The importance of traceability takes on a strong significance when considering the difference in pesticide regulations between EU and non-EU countries where pesticide laws are much more lax.”

Farmers lament the injustice of getting punished while others get off scot-free for the same thing.

“For a long time, farmers have suffered a negative image and been looked down upon by the community in general. Our approach as a Hub has been to facilitate dialogue between all parties concerned, as we believe that this is more likely to lead to a long-term and reasonable solution than by focusing on purely punitive measures.”

The Ministry for Agriculture says spot checks for pesticides are carried out at the Pitkali Market, with about 50 surprise inspections carried out this year so far. Onsite inspections are also carried out to verify that the vegetables being delivered to the markets are locally grown and that producers with specific products truly cultivate the products they declare.

A spokesman for the parliamentary secretary said a National Gene Bank would be established to safeguard against the possible loss of local varieties through the accidental introduction of harmful pests or diseases. Questions whether there are plans to invest in a local pesticides testing laboratory remained unanswered.