The Malta Independent 22 October 2020, Thursday

Lack of transparency at pitkalija a major issue for farmers

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 12 August 2018, 09:30 Last update: about 3 years ago

According to Malcolm Borg, Deputy Director at the Institute for Applies Sciences, who is in charge of the Centre for Agriculture at MCAST, if the current trend continues, there may well not be any professional farmers left in 20 years time.

In an interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday, he highlighted the fact that farmers are telling their children not to follow in their footsteps, because they know the kind of difficult life this would lead to.

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Asked to identify the main challenges faced by the agriculture sector in Malta, Borg said: There are a number of challenges that touch various aspects of the sector. One of the major challenges is the market. I do not think we are competitive in the local fruit and vegetable market for various reasons, but especially because there is a lot of imported produce that is generally cheaper and which could be of a better quality, thus farmers are finding it difficult to compete.”

“Then there is the Pitkalija, which is a non-transparent wholesale system. It should be an auction house but is anything but. It is not working or functioning well for farmers. The prices farmers fetch at this Pitkalija are ridiculously low, and this could be due to the supply and demand dynamic or for other reasons, but it is a very untraceable and non-transparent system and thus we cannot know the real problem. Various governments have wanted to reform the system but it is what it is and, unfortunately, it is one of the major shortcomings in this sector.”

What happens at the Pitkalija, he said, is that farmers give their produce to a middleman, the pitkal, whose job is to try to sell the farmer’s produce and. in return, receives a commission. “But there is a lack of traceability regarding the price the produce is sold for, etc. A pitkal can, for example, sell the produce at €1 per kilo, but then tell the farmer he sold it for 50c per kilo. There is no way for farmers to know how much profit the pitkal makes.”

In addition to this issue, Borg highlighted the fact that farmers are not well coordinated, and thus do not know what demand there is for certain produce, so do not know what kind to grow and in what quantities. “The lack of coordination between farmers is one major weakness of the agricultural sector.”

 

Photo Michael Camilleri

What kind of reform should there be at the Pitkalija (vegetable market) for there to be a fairer system, or do you perhaps believe it should be abolished and replaced with some new system?

I believe the Pitkalija is very important for wholesale. The major farmers in Malta, who produce hundreds of boxes of produce each week, need somewhere to take that produce, and small initiatives such as selling online for large producers will not work. So the Pitkalija is important. Everyone knows what needs to be done: introduce traceability.

We could have a real-time system, a digital system, that can trace all produce from the farmer’s field to the consumer, via the farmer, the Pitkal and the grocer, to the consumer. Bar-coding is one way, for example. It is important to manage each transaction, and the different participants in the value chain should, for example, be able to trace back a box of tomatoes they are buying. It is something relatively simple, but it is the foundation of what needs to be done.

We can also talk about a minimum price at the Pitkalija. I’ve seen a box of around six cauliflowers being sold at 10c. That is ridiculously low and the farmer is not even breaking even, not covering his expenses. I think that a minimum price that would need to be decided upon fairly can be set, and it would need to remain competitive with imported produce.

 

Would cooperatives not help with the coordination issues you previously mentioned?

“Yes, but I think farmers lack the governance and management skills to coordinate, which is something MCAST is trying to change through its courses. Having said that, in all countries farmers are specialised in producing products, and then there are other people who try to coordinate farmers, telling them what to grow and how. So I do not think we should expect farmers to form cooperatives on their own and run them on their own. Farmers are there to produce and we need to have a good management structure above the production level to coordinate farmers: not government, but people who know how to oversee and coordinate an agricultural cooperative.

The cooperatives we had – and still have – generally did not function properly: some went bankrupt – and even many of the cooperatives still running have too many farmers to try and coordinate and it is not a model that is functioning well. Trying to coordinate a thousand farmers, and lobbying for the different needs of these farmers – such as who grows what and when – is a logistical nightmare. So the current cooperatives are too big. In Malta there are 32 registered cooperatives, which sounds like a lot, there are only two or three that are really trying to do something. I think many of them are too big and most of them are not trying to coordinate the production of farmers because it is so difficult. Instead, we should have smaller cooperative clusters of farmers working together to better coordinate their production schedules.

 

You mentioned that foreign produce can be of a better quality, but shouldn’t local produce taste better?

With regard to taste, nothing can compete with local produce. What I meant by better quality is that, usually, imported produce is graded. So imported tomatoes would be of the same size, colour and are cleaned, making them look better and thus more presentable. The consumer looks for these things. Local produce is not graded, for various reasons – including the low volumes we have. When a greengrocer purchases grade A imported peppers, for example, you know what to expect: they are all of the same size, the same colour, none of them are damaged, etc. That is something both the greengrocer and the consumer tend to favour.

 

What about a local grading system?

We have been discussing this for a very long time. If we adapt such systems for Malta, we must understand that our volumes are smaller, and we do not have the varied markets that they have in other countries. Grade C produce, for example, is the lowest grade: it is not of a required size, or is slightly tarnished, and it goes to juicing or further processing. We do not have that facility in Malta so, unfortunately, grade C produce goes to waste in Malta. We can adopt such a system, but it needs to be suitable for the local market.

 

How have the major supermarkets affected the local produce industry?

Generally, they have had a negative effect. Farmers are not geared for convenience. Many people go to supermarkets to buy everything they want once every week or two, and that’s it. Farmers have not yet adapted to this relatively new reality. So they continue producing what they have been producing for years: the fruit and vegetables that housewives at the time wanted.

That is changing rapidly – and supermarkets are the externalisation of that. Women go out to work and don’t have the time to cook the kind of meals we used to see in the past. So people go to supermarkets and buy the most convenient produce they can find. As an example, we grow a lot of potatoes in Malta, yet most consumers – in supermarkets, restaurants and hotels – use ready-peeled, cut and frozen potatoes for chips, because it is more convenient. In Malta we do not produce that. We produce very good quality potatoes – and are renowned for them across Europe – but we are not going that extra mile, we are missing the middle industry. We are not providing that convenience for the consumer

I spoke with a chef who was purchasing 20kg of broad beans every two days during their season. He told me they were not local, and that if he used locally grown beans he would have to hire employees just to pod them. So he buys imported, frozen and ready-podded, broad beans. As such we are not geared for convenience.

 

There has been an EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) report which found an excessive use of pesticides. What are your comments on this?

Firstly, I want to say that all food on the market must be clean. There is never any justification for an excessive amount of any pesticides on any produce, local or imported. I also think that farmers try to use as little pesticide as possible, and only when it is really needed, because pesticides are really expensive and farmers are business people with very limited profit margins. It would not make economic sense to increase the expense just for the sake of it.

I also think that neither the sampling nor the reports are fair on farmers. The EFSA instructs member states to take samples from unspecified origin. To take an example, each country has to sample peaches but, for example, out of the 10 peaches Bulgaria would sample, one would be local and the other nine would be imported. In Malta, all 10 would be local, and so you cannot compare the two markets because the Bulgarian authority would have only taken one local peach. We cannot say Maltese peaches carry an excessive amount of pesticides compared with Bulgarian peaches, because the sample of local produce in each country was different. If you look at the bar graph, Malta’s bar of excessive pesticide residues was very high compared to other countries, but we used a lot of local, rather than imported, produce.

 

But the argument is that a high amount of pesticides was still found...

Yes, but my point is that we cannot compare country with country. With regard to excessive pesticides, this can be a problem. For sure, farmers will not increase their expenses for nothing, but we cannot expect them to know how to make use of alternatives. There is no one to teach farmers. The retailers will, for example, tell farmers how much pesticide to use, but research into this subject world-wide is huge and there are all sorts of technologies and systems. If we want farmers to use these technologies and systems, someone needs to inform them, to disseminate the information to the farmers.

Around the world there are technical people to inform and explain things to farmers who, in turn, will try them. In Malta we introduce legislation and expect our farmers to – all of a sudden – change their practice and use alternatives without telling them what they can use and how. Farmers are the biggest allies in this and they want to do it. It is not a matter of persuasion; it’s a matter of letting them know what exists, how to use things and how the risk of using something new can be mitigated. This is quite basic, but we are not doing it.

 

How much do farmers know about the use of pesticides on vegetables?

There is a dose for each pesticide that needs to be applied with water, in addition to the safety interval – a number of days between the last application and the harvesting. Farmers would know that, because the information would have been given to them by the retailer, as well as being on the label. It is more a matter of being able to use alternatives, but we are not letting farmers know what they can do.

 

How has this pesticide news affected the market itself?

It has affected the farmers dramatically. Sales went down immediately with such news. After this report came out, I spoke with a few farmers who had seen a significant drop in their sales. We must also keep in mind that the absolute majority of farmers do not have any excess pesticides on their produce, and they are suffering the consequences of those who are irresponsible.

Sample size was also an issue over the report in question. We send our samples abroad for analysis, and it costs money. I think that is the reason we do not have a big sample – because of the cost. With green peppers, for example, 100 per cent of the local ones tested exceeded the pesticide level, but the sample size was one. Because that one green pepper had a relatively high pesticide level, all the green peppers grown in Malta were put in the same category. The absolute majority of farmers are law-abiding and use pesticide as they should, but they were obviously put in the same category as those who did not. This was quite unfair, and there are so many things working against farmers already that it was the last thing they needed.

 

There has been a lot of concern regarding the lack of young people becoming farmers. How can this be turned around and are you concerned about the farming sector in Malta and that it could become a thing of the past?

Many farmers I speak to discourage their children from working the land. My father is a full-time farmer and, like him, many farmers ask their children to do something else. Even if their children are interested in going into agriculture, they tell them not to because they know it will be a very difficult life for them. In 20 years time, if the current trends continue, professional farming will die out. The land will be there, and so will be the people working the land, but professional farming will die out. That is very worrying for many reasons, but especially for food security. We are a small island, insular, in a troubled geo-political region, and not to have at least some food security is very worrying. It is a issue that should be prioritised on the political agenda.

 

What needs to be done to prevent this from happening, apart from cooperatives and pricing issues?

There is the issue of a need for technical people in all agricultural sectors to guide farmers. We need a complete upheaval of the land laws. If you have a student who wants to go into agriculture but who does not have any land, it is well nigh impossible for him or her to access land.

At the moment, we have vertical inheritance: the parent leaving land to his child. I think we also need horizontal inheritance when it comes to public land worked by farmers through emphyteusis etc, from one farmer to another, unrelated, farmer. It is important that farmers are able to transfer land to other farmers and to students, people wanting to start a new agricultural business. It would be a step in the right direction, and would ease the barrier of entry.

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