The Malta Independent 20 October 2021, Wednesday

COVID-19 exposed our vulnerability to food insecurity

Peter Agius Tuesday, 10 March 2020, 07:31 Last update: about 3 years ago

News from around the world about the sudden spread of COVID-19 alarmed people in Malta. People rushed to supermarkets and stocked their pantries brimming with food and other daily needs. Beyond the health concerns, the Covid threat has set many thinking of our vulnerability.

Many filled cupboards and freezers as a precaution, conscious that Malta imports virtually all we consume. If the virus leads to a paralysis of importation then food and essential items on the islands might indeed become scarce.

The risk is probably hyper-inflated, yet the vulnerability is real. Food security needs to climb higher on the national agenda. Food security is of fundamental importance in Europe. The European Union in fact dedicates the biggest chunk of its budget and its political drive to a strong agriculture policy ensuring that our land feeds our people.

Ironically, in Malta, instead of making use of this European policy to strengthen agriculture and food security we are suffering all the counter effects of such policy to the demise of local food production. It is a self-inflicted malaise.

Worrying signs are out there for all to see. We are now importing 70% of our fresh produce. The ever dwindling and ageing population of full time farmers struggle for survival. Their sons take up jobs far from the fields. Working the fields does not pay.

Meanwhile the government has not only failed to give solace to those who feed us but has gone out of its way to put farmers in more trouble. Recall the plans the government had made to take over an extensive area of fertile land at Bulebel for industrial purposes. It was only thanks to the pressure of farmers, activists and the Nationalist Party that this land was kept. The government learnt nothing from that story. It pursued with the Central Link Project destroying fields and greenhouses without much concern for those who work the land. Now it wants to take over 250 tumoli of productive fields at Magħtab to turn them into trashland.

For our government, the farmers are acceptable victims of its waste management failures. Over the past 5 years the European Commission spearheaded policies in favour of a circular economy. Throughout this period, the government failed to take concrete action. Now we learn that no recyling is taking place.

During a recent house visit in the south of Malta I was told that back in the years, waste collection did not yield more than a burrow wheel of waste in that village. All was recycled in fields or fed to animals. This was the real circular economy. That is an added reason to give due attention to farmers and our local produce. We cannot ignore all the extra packaging that importation entails. Most of it can be avoided if we promote local produce.

Neither can we disregard the carbon footprint arising from importation, yet again another reason to make EU policies work for local production. This week in Brussels, the European Commission launched the Green Deal with plans to limit emissions and step up climate action and ambitions including climate neutrality by 2050.

On climate change we should be inspired by our youths. Their action led to the setting up of a parliamentary committee, and the declaration of a climate emergency in Malta. Climate change is having a dire effect also on the agricultural sector. The recent drought that our archipelago has experienced goes to show that climate change is no myth and that common agricultural policies need to further address climate change and water management as our islands face the threat of desertification.

I have made the promotion of local production one of my main political priorities. Over the past year, the Nationalist Party as a whole has recognised the importance of local production. We will continue to put the pressure on every occasion. Yet, we cannot achieve results on our own. Government needs to heed these calls, shedding its hallmark of arrogance and listening to the concerns on the ground.

Government’s actions so far speak of gross negligence. While we are keen on importing products from overseas, we continue to disregard our local produce to the extent that Malta was the only EU country not featuring in the list of EU products promoted by the European Commission in China. On the local implementation front, we need to highlight that storm relief promised a year ago arrived a year late, with a year lost in production and after a good three press conferences hitting TVM news promising the aid. If that was not enough, it now transpires that government is playing the softie in Brussels where EU funding for the sector is heading for a cut of €36 million.

If we care about our food, it is high time to stop the hypocrisy and change direction immediately. PM Abela’s intervention in the road blockage at Magħtab appeases his followers but does nothing to put much needed political commitment to put our mind at rest on our food production.

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