The Malta Independent 4 December 2020, Friday

Focus on our food: what it takes to go organic

Peter Agius Wednesday, 18 November 2020, 07:29 Last update: about 16 days ago

The quality of our food is without doubt a matter of the highest importance. We all want the best for our children and our families, and we know well that a healthy lifestyle depends on good nutrition. Although it may be less perceptible, the production of our food has an obvious impact on our surroundings.

A heavy use of pesticides and growth control methods over time have a major impact on the natural environment, not least the biodiversity, which can suffer a setback of up to 50% of all natural life in our countryside when compared to organic food production.

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In view of the above, and given the increasing awareness of our natural environment, it may come as a surprise to many that organic food production in Malta is practically inexistent. In fact, recently published statistics show that Malta’s share of organic farming stands at 0.4%. Barely one out of two hundred fields are dedicated to organic production, where food is produced in harmony with nature rather than against it.

Elsewhere in Europe it is a different story, in Austria, 24% of all food, including meat, is produced organically, and that share is on the increase. European Commission President Von Der Leyen set an ambitious target of 25% of all food produced in the EU to be produced organically by 2030. Malta has a long way to go to get there. First of all, we must understand why we are so averse to producing food in an organic manner in Malta. This is a question I set myself with a view of participating in the European Commission’s public consultation exercise, meant as a first step to amend the existing EU laws on topic.

From my meetings with farmers, experts, natural food enthusiast and farming entrepreneurs, a worrying picture emerges for the organic food business in Malta. A whole series of barriers and obstacles making the path of those willing to consider going organic tortuous and heavy. Let me share with you just a few of these.

Let us start with the barriers in EU laws themselves. First of all, organic production naturally requires some isolation from the non-organic production. A classic illustration of this is that if my neighbour is spraying his cabbages with pesticides on a windy day, my organic production is inevitably contaminated by his pesticides. For this reason, EU legislation foresees a so-called buffer-zone of 200 metres distance for one’s patch from other non-organic zones. In the Czech Republic or Germany, where the average farm is 300 tumuli, a 200 meter buffer zone is no issue. In Malta however, where agricultural holdings are frequently not more than 50 tumuli, the buffer zone eats up a good part of your property. Now, in Czechia, that buffer zone normally is ‘suffered’ over one piece of land. In Malta, on the other hand, a farmers’ 50 tumuli of arable land is spread onto 5 to 10 different pieces and fragments of land all requiring their own 200 metre buffer zone.

The above is just one illustration showing how, unless adapted to our needs, EU legislation would inhibit the Maltese entrepreneur from tapping into resources through funding and other benefits.

I raised this point directly in a recent meeting with the European Commission. One of the possibilities around this problem, apart from a reduction of buffer zones which however have their own rationales, would be for Malta to push for collective organic farming zones. This requires a national strategy promoting certain farming zones as having an additional organic vocation whereby farmers would be encouraged, through the use of collective funding schemes, to consider switching their conventional production to organic in a group rather than individually.

Such an initiative would reduce the impact of the EU buffer zone rule, but it could also reduce the bureaucracy presently attached to the organic production label. One farmer I spoke to told me of his ordeal with the paper work, procedures and fees encountered when he considered going organic. He did not pursue the project. Although there are many exceptions, farmers in Malta tend to be rather averse to initiatives requiring regular paperwork administration. The collective approach mentioned above can address this in part by using a new instrument introduced in the recent EU legislation permitting collective organic registrations schemes. If public authority wants to really trigger the change we should see in this sector, we must go a step further and consider government authority taking over part of the processing and fees for registration, thereby truly encouraging farmers to switch to organic food production in the coming years.

Another barrier to producing healthier food in Malta is the licencing regime for pesticides. It is fair to say, in fact, that while a farmer in Sicily may have access to four or five options of pesticides for a particular pest problem, the Maltese farmer is normally stuck with just one option. The reason for this is that the local pesticides registration regime requires importers to register a licence for every product offered. That comes with a smart fee which the importer has to limit to a smaller number of products due to the limited market for his products. The above has its perverse effects on the use of pesticides in Malta, where the local farmer is frequently ending using more aggressive pesticides for the lack of options of organic or more nature friendly pesticides, which could possibly address his problem more efficiently. Here again, we need public intervention to address this structural anomaly for the sake of seeing more of our production switching to organic.

The above are just a few of the issues which we need to resolve with urgency to see any growth in the organic food production in Malta. The market share of these products is set to increase as consumers become all the more conscious of the origin and health impact of our food. Let us not forsake the opportunity for local food production to find its own niche and reverse the unfortunate takeover of foreign imported products now taking up 70% of the local market. With the right political will, we can turn what looks like a dismal performance into an opportunity for the Maltese consumer and our farming community. I will continue doing my part. Watch this space for more information.

Peter Agius, MEP candidate and EU expert

[email protected]

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