The Malta Independent 24 January 2022, Monday

Festering food fraud and Labour’s stale breath for Maltese farmers

Peter Agius Wednesday, 1 December 2021, 07:39 Last update: about 3 months ago

When we speak of farmers, herders and fishermen we speak of our food. This is the age where some of our children may think that fishermen harvest fish-fingers and that carrots grow neat and clean like apples, but at the end of the day, unless the farmers work the soil and the fishermen prep their hooks we can end up without the most important supply of them all: our food source. 

This is the reason why last week the EU adopted a renewed Common Agricultural Policy all set on encouraging young people to take to the noble trades of farming, animal husbandry and fishing. For the EU, our food source is of such an imperative importance that it was the main chapter of EU treaties well before environmental policy and migration even featured on the EU map. 

How did we make this EU objective work in Malta? Data published yesterday shows that 40 farms have declared bankruptcy in Malta over the last four years. That in itself is a good indicator on how we are facing global competition. That data refers to pig farms alone. One can rest assured that wider data on other farming activity would show similar trends. The reason for this is that food production in Malta has become a desperate enterprise.

You have a series of factors which bend their tension against farming and the young farmer in particular. Most of these factors are made worse through government’s own inaction and omission. Let us go over just two of these factors. First and foremost you have the price and use of land. Over 60% of good agricultural land in Malta is hired from a land owner under agricultural lease, called ‘qbiela’. These lease contracts go back decades or, in some cases, hundreds of years. Some contracts foresee that the farmer pays the land owner with a kestrel, others foresee payment of one Maltese lira per tumolo, now worth over 40,000 euro.

Authority in Malta has left the above situation to fester. Years of injustice against the land owners have accumulated with government doing very little to address that or to at least revise its own qbiela agreements to ensure that the real farmers are working government land.

The situation has now exploded with the court finally recognising the gross injustice against land owners and opening the leases to a fair market price. This is now the other extreme. Having had no real policy to foster agricultural land as against private rural land for leisure purposes now we ended up with farmers having to pay millions to be able to gather enough land to farm. This is evidently unsustainable. The PN has published a way forward aiding farmers to buy private land at market prices. Government has not moved.

Another factor bearing stress on Maltese food production is food fraud. In Italy, Spain and France to mention just a few neighbours, food fraud is treated with a heavy hand. Trade in fake Parmiggiano is for instance treated as a criminal offence on which Italian authorities will intervene with inspections and seizures at the slightest whiff. Have you ever seen that happening in Malta? The only thing we see seized are contraband cigarettes and drugs. And yet, reports abound from the food producers themselves of frozen meats imported from Asian markets, thawed in ware houses and then sold as Maltese fresh pork and poultry. Several farmers tell you also how the local Pitkalija is often the setting for imported greens being sold off as local. The above practices are illegal both under EU and Maltese laws. Have the authorities conducted any investigations? Did not hear of any.

Currently, Maltese authorities are allowing for food fraud on a massive scale happening under our noses. There seems to be an unwritten plan to drive local produce out of business. The local pork meat cooperative spent thousands of euros on a ‘Buy Maltese Pork’ campaign. They had to scrap it as their branding was being used for imported meats, with the government not lifting a finger to stop that.

Maybe we are naïve to expect anything different from a government who failed miserably in registering a single Maltese product as deserving EU protection and recognition at EU level. Malta remains in fact the only EU country not featuring in a trade deal with China to promote EU products in the massive Chinese market.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Minister Clyde Caruana declared that Malta was risking serious trouble when a freight ship laden with imported food was blocked in Italy. Our families were risking going hungry! That risk remains present although we can’t quantify it nor see it clearly. With every farm that closes however that risk gets bigger.

In its electoral manifesto, Labour spoke of its vision to give ‘new breath to Maltese farming’. The reality nine years later is the stale breath of bankruptcies.

Indeed, all Government’s actions right now speak of an overall policy direction that accelerates the extinction of agriculture in Malta. We must revert that course. Urgently.

Peter Agius PN spokesperson, MEP candidate

[email protected]

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