The Malta Independent 5 March 2024, Tuesday
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Joseph Muscat’s comment before farmers protest was ‘insensitive’ and ‘short-sighted’ – NGO president

Sabrina Zammit Sunday, 11 February 2024, 09:30 Last update: about 22 days ago

Comments made by former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat before a protest by farmers took place in Malta last week were "insensitive" and "short-sighted", Ghaqda Bdiewa Attivi president Malcolm Borg told The Malta Independent on Sunday.

Over the past weeks farmers across Europe took to the streets to protest against various European initiatives and laws. Joining forces with farmers from countries like France and Italy, Malta's agricultural community, led by the Ghaqda Bdiewa Attivi, also protested last week, where tractors and heavy vehicles were driven from Ta' Qali to Floriana.

During the protest the NGO said that it was "against the European Union's current framework and future ambitions that are seriously threatening the livelihoods of farmers. These and other similar issues are also being raised by farmers protesting in other European countries to whom we extend our sincere solidarity".

Borg said that the European Union cannot continue enhancing and facilitating trade relations with third countries regarding certain products. The NGO has been protesting for trade with parties from these countries to stop when it comes to products that compete directly with local ones. Borg said that local farmers are increasingly facing competition from produce originating from non-EU countries. These products often adhere to lower environmental and regulatory standards, resulting in lower production costs, he said. Consequently, this creates an unjust and imbalanced playing field, significantly impacting the profits of local food producers who struggle to compete with such items, he said.

Just a day before the protest, former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat also commented on this pressing issue and said that if the EU were to stop importing from third countries, "then Maltese people will have to buy food at a higher price, which leads to a cost of living problem. Things shouldn't be taken at face value".

Reacting to this, Borg described this comment as "insensitive" and "a short-sighted comment", saying he did not take into consideration "the several other aspects in the food chain".

"When it comes to food, it should never be a race to the bottom, because if we are going to constantly search for the cheapest price we are going to increase the rubbish we eat," he said.

Borg also warned that if this continues, Malta would continually give its sovereignty to a "dozen importers", while becoming increasingly "more vulnerable to monopolies and cartels".

During the interview, he also said that the government should push for all agricultural land to be worked in order to maximise food security and to decrease Malta's dependency on importation.

The NGO's president gave a one out of 10 when it comes to food security for Malta and said that around 80% of the food the country consumes is imported from other countries. Borg said that this is why Malta should seek ways to maximise its own food production.

"In Malta we have 10,000 hectors of land that we need to use in the best way possible to decrease dependency on importation," Borg said.

He continued that having agricultural land is an asset and that "anyone who decides to use it for ulterior motives, other than to produce crops, is making the country suffer by not contributing to the public good".

PN MEP candidate Peter Agius had noted that Malta is the only EU country which has no producer organisation, which would allow farmers to tap into some EU funding.

Producer organisations aid farmers in minimising transaction expenses and cooperating during the processing and promotion of their goods. They enhance farmers' collective bargaining leverage by consolidating supply and enhancing marketing strategies.

Asked about this, Borg said that there were several attempts at producer organisations, but all of them failed as it is not feasible for Malta. He said that Maltese farmers specialise in mix cropping, whereas for a producer organisation to be successful, farmers need to be specialised in one crop.

The Ghaqda Bdiewa Attivi president said that there are far more problems that should take priority over creating yet another producer organisation.

Borg highlights importance of prioritising food literacy among the general population 

He said that despite there being a demand for fresh frozen produce, there is a gap in the local market when it comes to local produce. Borg said that there should be more entrepreneurs who buy fresh fruit and vegetables directly from farmers so that it can be turned into frozen goods among other things.

Prioritising food literacy among the general population is crucial to encourage the consumption of locally-produced foods. Borg said that if the nation consumed cheeselets at the same rate as cheddar, there would be increased demand, benefiting the local food chain.

Regarding an issue that was also highlighted during the protest, Borg said that the European Union has a stringent framework regulating state aid, which it needs to relax, as it precludes governments from financially assisting farmers who would require such assistance for various reasons (for example, increased expenses, damage compensation, and so on). He said that despite the willingness of national governments to support farmers in challenging circumstances, state aid regulations often pose obstacles, even when funds are available from national budgets.

"This situation is deemed unfair, particularly when compared to the substantial financial assistance provided to farmers in non-European Union countries by their respective governments. Such support helps alleviate the burden of production costs and enhances the competitiveness of their products in EU markets," he said.

According to the farmers, the EU is also increasingly advocating for the promotion of fallow land to enhance soil fertility and address environmental concerns. The Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi argued that incentivising unproductive land contradicts the fundamental purpose of agriculture, which historically, culturally, socially and economically, revolves around production. Leaving land fallow results in reduced production, leading to reliance on imported sources for food, he said. Borg said that promoting fallowing while increasing food imports is deemed illogical, counterproductive and unfair to food producers facing rising expenses. Therefore, measures promoting land fallowing should be abandoned, with funds redirected to financially support farmers actively using land for food production to reduce dependence on imports, he said.

The association also criticised the European Union's numerous legislative frameworks aimed at making food production more environmentally-friendly. While acknowledging the importance of environmental protection, the Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi urged for sensitivity towards farmers, their families and food provision. The swift and ambitious changes proposed within these frameworks could adversely affect the agricultural landscape in Malta and Europe by disrupting farmers' tools and resources, such as chemicals and available land, Borg said while saying that the EU has not provided any kind of alternative.

Just a day after the protest took place in Malta and in a significant setback to the EU's Green Deal and Farm to Fork framework, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the withdrawal of the Sustainable Use Regulation (SUR), intended to halve pesticide use by 2030, he said.

During her speech in Strasbourg, Von der Leyen stated that the SUR proposal had become polarising, rejected by the European Parliament, and stalled in the Council, thus necessitating action.

She suggested a new proposal with increased stakeholder input, following weeks of farmer protests against EU environmental regulations. This highlights the ongoing challenge of balancing environmental sustainability with farmer concerns within EU agricultural policy.

While welcoming the development positively, Borg is also urging for the six Maltese MEPs to discuss more with stakeholders within the agricultural sector before taking any votes, so that any decision taken is an informed one. Going forward, the NGO's president said that the Maltese government needs to be more stubborn when it comes to agricultural negotiations with the EU. He said that when it comes to laws concerning the sector, Malta cannot form part of the "one-size-fits-all" standard that the EU tries to negotiate.

Borg said that farmers are resolute in persisting with their pressure "until there is a significant change" and hinted at further action, the extent of which is currently uncertain.

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