Editorial: Reap what you sow

Last Updated on Thursday, 4 February, 2021 at 11:38 am by Andre Camilleri

In many of our European counterparts, thanks to modern certification methods, organic agriculture is increasingly defined by, and narrowed down to, a checklist of regulations. It also allows promotion to focus primarily on health benefits to exclude less desirable elements, such as the food miles involved in importing organic food; possibly unfair conditions of labour and the use of pesticides. That being said, the situation is different in Malta. Here, organic farming tells a very different story. This week, Malta was rated the worst for organic agriculture in Europe, and what’s more, this isn’t the first time we have been given this gauntlet.

Many local organic farmers were conventional farmers dissatisfied with a market situation that they found flawed and unjust. Switching to organic allowed them to adopt direct selling methods since the demand for organic food guarantees a steady market. It offers hope for Maltese farmers who are frustrated with the bottom line to obtain a fairer price. So why isn’t everyone making the switch? Well, the answer isn’t as simple as that.

Let’s start from day one of the organic farmers’ quest. Qualification as an organic producer is a costly endeavour as, justifiably, the rules undergo an audit process. This usually kicks off with a sizeable €500 starting fee and continues with regular audits to check compliance with organic farming standards. There’s currently no support to get off the ground here.

Once the farmer picks up the courage to go organic, he or she will need to wait for a transition period during which his land will restore and recover from all the residues of conventional farming methods. The farmer must also ensure the ground in question is distanced far enough from other non-organic fields with a buffer zone established by European standards. Here the average field would accommodate the whole of a local village and the organic producer will need to come to terms with a local subsidy practice which will not offer up any additional favour.

Another critical motivator for the Maltese farmer and government to make the organic shift sits on the budgetary front. The European Union’s landmark Farm to Fork strategy, published last May, sets in place a series of ambitious environmental targets including slashing pesticide use by 50% and making 25% of all EU farmland organic by 2030.

Malta’s €151m allocation for EU agricultural funds for the next seven years will be strapped to our ability to advance common EU objectives which are now heavily oriented to cement advancement of our green credentials.

Positively work is being undertaken on how EU and national rules need to adapt to accommodate the Maltese reality. Still, consumers ought to be placing more demand here, for the authorities to recognise that local agriculture, whether conventional or organic, is more worthy of their support than imported food. With local help, farmers would be better positioned to take the step from conventional to organic agriculture, which is far from insurmountable with the right incentives in place.

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