The Malta Independent 19 April 2024, Friday
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Swarms of legislative locusts: How EU policy is affecting agriculture

Andrea Caruana Sunday, 3 March 2024, 08:15 Last update: about 3 months ago

In our rapidly-paced time of pre-packaged goods, processed food and restaurant-quality deliveries within 30 minutes or less to your door, it is easy to forget those that make it all possible: farmers. All the more so, since throughout the years they have been pushed further and further into the background and finally behind the scenes of the food industry. But make no mistake about it: they are the ground-rock of all that keeps our bellies full and our society fuelled.

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It is easy to take those working at the start of the glossy, attractively-marketed end-products for granted. Perhaps that was the case in the previous years in the EU who dished out a number of policies and deals without keeping the agricultural workers in mind. Like most of the products in our supermarkets, the policies were neat and attractively described. We begin with the European Green Deal started in 2023 and concluded on 20th February 2024; by its mechanisms, it plans to make the EU “climate-neutral”, “protect its diverse natural habitats” to safeguard biodiversity and “transform the economy”.

This will serve to optimise resource-efficiency and reduce agricultural costs on the farm level. For this, one third of the EU’s budget will be allocated via the Common Agricultural Policy. Furthermore, climate neutrality, specifically a 55% decrease in greenhouse emission, will be achieved by policies on transport and energy as well as taxation by 2030. The ultimate goal is to make the EU the first 0 emissions continent. This all sounds very well, but the plot thickens.

The chief way that one third of emissions are planned to be reduced are by targeting the agricultural industry. This is done indirectly by the EU-Mercosur 2019 deal that strengthens trade and eases transport between the EU and Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, among other countries. In a nutshell; hike up importation into the EU. This hit small-time European farmers very hard and as a result they took to the streets to protest. Thus far there have been two Maltese farmers’ protests.

The Malta Independent on Sunday reached out to Malcolm Borg, president and spokesperson of Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi (Active Farmers Association), and the main activists in the recent farmer’s protests, to understand the repercussions of the Green Deal and the EU-Mercosur Deal better.

Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi is an NGO, founded in 2018, specifically for farmers actively in business in the local market. Indeed, each member must make a turnover of at least €10,000 annually. There are currently around 200 members. But they weren’t the only NGOs that are concerned on the way forward. They were joined by Viti Malta, Ix-Xirka tan-Nagħaġ u l-Mogħoż, MHRA, Friends of the Earth and others.

Borg said that their main qualm is the unchecked increase in importation. He specifically said that they are by no means against importation; on condition that they may fairly compete with it. In a statement at a previous protest, Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi said that importation will lower standards, from working to environmental, decrease regulation, impacting food safety, and lower cost of production at the expense of the agricultural workers. Ironically, the EU-Mercosur deal is directly converse to this and claims to raise food safety standards and help workers’ rights whilst stimulating healthy competition. Borg added that whilst the EU would appear to have pristine ethical agriculture on its own turf, the source of importations outside of the EU may be far from it.

Short-term and on the national level, Borg said that we must strive to identify the points of entry of non-EU imports into the country and, a more difficult task, clarify all the routes taken by the importers. The latter is more difficult due to non-EU outsourcing and repackaging. For example, using arbitrary countries and imports, Spain imports tomatoes from non-EU Morrocco, rebrands them and sells them to other EU countries. So, whilst the tomatoes may appear to be coming from Spain, at first glance, and so assumed to be protected by EU food safety legislations etc., it is actually from a non-EU country with wholly different legislation and standards. So, one may see how difficult outlining exact routes of produce may be. However, it is definitely a priority, as Borg added that the people should be certain they are eating good, safe food.

By the EU-Mercosur deal, the EU was pleased to announce arrangements to export Finnish craft beer, made by the staple grain rye, to Argentina. This makes one question if we perhaps got it wrong, that the EU-Mercosur deal is in fact a potential opportunity for business in the agricultural sector. Borg quickly pointed out that there is a caveat, however. Such deals are perfect for large farms, but detrimental to small farms. Borg elaborated that the EU as a whole may be a beneficiary but nothing trickles down to the small-time farmers. So much so, that on the national level, such small Maltese farms cannot even afford to export and so may not reap any benefits whatsoever.

Maltese agriculture, in truth, is desperately suffering according to Borg. Transportation expenses and naturally-scarce Maltese groundwater are a constant expense, he said. Fertilizer prices were already high and spiked due to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. Further burning holes in farmer’s pockets is the hiked price of highly useful plastic, also due to the conflict and the sources of oil it affected. Here, the impact of non-EU imports on Maltese farmers and the uneven playing-field that they face is clearly showcased.

Keeping in mind the eclectic regulations and dubious standards of non-EU imported produce; why should Mediterranean countries that have the ideal conditions to grow good quality tomatoes import tomatoes from Morrocco? To add further disadvantage, the non-EU importers have the budget to utilise a grading system on their produce, ensuring that the most perfect-looking tomatoes for importation. It is emphasized that looks can be deceiving however. The best looking produce is not necessarily the best for consumption. Indeed, Borg, who is also in charge of the MCAST- Centre for Agriculture, Aquatics & Animal Sciences often tells his students, “Nature is not perfect.” The result of this uneven playing field is a surplus of home-grown produce and a net loss for the farmers.

A similar situation struck the local dairy business with the consequence being a rise in local fresh milk prices twice in the last year. Aside from the high price of fodder, the government’s Stabbilta’ initiative specifically lowered the price of imported long-life milk whilst leaving the fresh local milk untouched. In this case and the above, consumers gravitate towards the most attractive prices. This resulted in a surplus of milk. Of interest, some damage control was carried out by turning the surplus to ricotta, however the dairy farmers still suffered a loss, he said.

Arable land has always been a struggle for Maltese farmers. Borg said that locally, the Lands Department has always been difficult to deal with due to sheer incompetency and excessive bureaucracy. He backed this statement by citing the case of a farmer who has been awaiting assistance from Lands for the past 10 years. What’s more, it is not an isolated case. But as if the local problems were not enough, by the EU’s Soil Monitoring Law there is a drive to leave arable land empty for the sake of biodiversity. Whilst good in theory, the environment cannot take precedence over struggling farmers who would have to decrease their produce output.

Overall, Borg believes that the EU, possibly inadvertently, is driving towards increased importation to the detriment of the agricultural industry. Though this all seems very bleak, Borg said that the protests of the Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi did have an effect. Borg said they are currently in discussion with government and that there is good will towards their cause. Furthermore, it seems that the Maltese MEPs paid attention following their action. That said, one must not forget that the EU has a hold on how much help the national governments may help the agricultural sector, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. The best example is State Aid, outlining stringent conditions which national governments must satisfy before aiding the agricultural industry. The grip of the EU should not be taken lightly.

 

 

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