After tasty, healthy and possibly meaty, my criteria in food usually involves also ‘local’. I believe that most of us actually prefer to eat local. This is not just a matter of reaping the benna of one’s own land, but is also a part of our being responsible citizens of the world, with a smaller impact on our environment.
Yet, while most of us will hold said rationale, local consumption is decreasing year on year, eaten up by foreign import of vegetables, fruits and increasingly, meat. Ironically, while our population increased about 14 per cent, trade at the pitkalija (vegetable market) for the same period went down by 20 per cent in Malta and 35 per cent in Gozo.
The situation of the Maltese farmer is not just a matter of concern for him and his kin. It is bad news for all of us given that no local farming means no food security, no supplies of proximity in case of importation problems linked to health or phytosanitary crises, not to mention the supply risks for our tourism industry. Farming may be two per cent of our GDP today, but in crisis situations it may become the life-saver for 100 per cent of the population.
This is, therefore, a matter of national importance requiring serious national debate starting from the reasons for the current situation. My analysis, calibrated through meetings with farmers, farming organisations and market operators is that we are facing a situation of a systematically handicapped market access for Maltese products in their own land. The EU Common Agricultural Policy is intended to equip the farmer to face competition while seeing to another fundamental aspect of EU policy: free movement and open competition. The tragedy of Maltese farming today is that our local product is suffering all the onslaught of free movement without finding the solace and empowerment of an agricultural policy meant to help him face that competition.
The result of that is that today 70 per cent of fruit and vegetables consumed in Malta comes from overseas. That percentage is bound to increase unless we take drastic action to facilitate the Maltese product’s access to our own market. We need a rapid change of direction if we want to avoid the extinction of farming as a profit-making activity in Malta.
Is it true that EU rules prohibit us from assisting Maltese farming? No, that is not true. Starting from a detailed analysis of the current situation and an insight of the applicable EU rules, together with my colleagues in the Nationalist Party, I am proposing a number of measures to be considered as a matter of urgency by government for the sake of a future for farming in Malta.
The EU Common Agricultural Policy was never meant to push Maltese farmers to the brink of bankruptcy. It is our management thereof, which is leading us there
One of the main reasons for the current market failure is the structural deficiencies in local market organisation. If we compare the milk producers to the pork sector and the vegetable farmer we realise that the first category is in a better situation thanks to a better organisation and longer-term strategic planning. We must do the same with pork, vegetables and fruit. While it is up to the farmers to associate, the government needs to take a more leading role in empowering their organisation with structural support.
Indeed, nothing in EU law inhibits government support to assist farmer organisations to organise themselves, invest in market research or assist with technical personnel, plan production cycles and invest in marketing and packaging facilities for members.
EU legislation, as interpreted by the European Court of Justice, prohibits explicit buy local campaigns with government participation. That inhibition, however, falls short of prohibiting the promotion of product virtues independent of origin, for instance a product’s freshness, its seasonality, its usage in local culture and its lower impact on the environment.
As we did with the D.OK wines scheme for which I commend the government, we can promote the consumption of local production with an environmentally-conscious label akin to the zero-kilometres concept. Fruits like bambinella, pomegranate, seasonal figs and loquat can be promoted simply for the seasonal bonanza they represent and their central place in Maltese culture and lifestyle. The above suggestions are all capable of being deployed without contravening EU legislation as established by EU Regulation No 1151.
EU regulation 1308 specifically foresees for the promotion of Maltese produce abroad. This regulation has not been used by Malta so far. There is ample room for schemes to promote semi-processed (like ġbejniet or sun-dried tomatoes) or fresh goods. The case of the Maltese potatoes export to Holland and Belgium are testimony to the potential success of other initiatives.
The above proposals clearly indicate that there is room for manoeuvre for government to help our farmers within the EU framework.
The EU Common Agricultural Policy was never meant to push Maltese farmers to the brink of bankruptcy. It is our management thereof which is leading us there. Let us act now before it is too late.
Peter Agius is a Nationalist Party candidate for the European elections, former head of the European Parliament Office and cabinet member of the President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece
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