‘We need a level playing field when it comes to organic farming’ – MOAM president

Mario Salerno, president of the Malta Organic Agricultural Movement (MOAM)

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Organic farmers are calling to have the same incentives as conventional farmers to encourage a much-needed shift across the islands. Speaking to this newsroom Mario Salerno, president of the Malta Organic Agricultural Movement (MOAM) explained he was not surprised to learn the recent news of Malta’s ranking as the worst in Europe for the organic farming areas.

 What’s more, it’s not the first time the islands have been awarded this accolade.

“Although Malta is moving towards targets set out by the EU, we need to start making bigger changes today to meet the huge cultural shift needed for tomorrow,” Salerno explained. “Making the switch into organic farming is no easy feat. The potential farmer is faced with significant expenses to set up, ongoing testing to maintain certification and bureaucratic systems in registering organic pesticides, which come with a hefty price tag,” he added. “The incentives conventional farmers are offered to apply Integrated Pest Management far outweigh those offered for organic farmers. It needs to be a level playing field on both local and European Union levels at a minimum.”

According to Eurostat, Malta recorded the worst statistic out of all European Union member states for organic farming areas – with its record of 0.5% well below the 8.5% EU average, recent figures showed. The irony is that EU countries supported and provided incentives to their organic farmers, while Malta had never given the same support to the local organic farmers to bridge the gap. Organic agriculture on the Maltese islands is also disadvantaged due to isolation from the continent.

Organic farming applies the principles of ecology, health, care and fairness. It is a technique which involves the traceability of the certified organic products, respects the welfare of animals and applies organic pesticides and fertilisers instead of synthetic chemicals. This process increases the soil biota which enhances its fertility and protects the ecosystems from any negative externalities. It keeps an ecological balance, thereby minimising pollution and wastage. Set up in 1991, MOAM has been one of the leading key drivers for change locally and a voice for the organic farming community.

What’s more, conventional farmers must undergo a minimum conversion period of two years in horticulture and three years in animal husbandry before producing agricultural goods, that can be marketed as certified organic products. Any produce sold during this time is identified as being “under conversion”. If both conventional and organic crops are being produced, operations must be clearly separated through every production stage.

Speaking to this newsroom Salerno explained: “Conventional farming today in Malta has become reliant on the use of pesticides and artificial fertilisers, however with greater educational awareness to farmers, we can use natural remedies from wild plants and methods to protect crops. Organic horticulture is feasible and viable. We have all the educational tools we need to go for the change. We have our limits as well for organic husbandry. It is possible to rear locally small organic animals in free range farms such as broilers, layers, rabbits, goats and sheep. Due to our small farms with land, it is not possible to rear bigger animals such as swine and cattle.”

The EU aims to have 25% of the agricultural produce from all 27 member states deriving from organic farming by 2030. This proposal was put forward as part of the European Commission’s European Green Deal, where there are plans for a specific budget of €40m to be reserved for organic farming for 2021. A shift Salerno believes is possible, with the right support and immediate action.

When asked what else would support the transition aside from government incentives, Salerno replied: “I believe we could start with organic breakfasts in primary schools and the local councils using organic methods to maintain and keep their soft areas and work more with educating the public on the benefits of opting for organic produce.

Some plant protection products (as pesticides are sometimes called) have been found over the last century to cause severe damage to people’s health, biodiversity, water and soil, yet public awareness locally remains low.

We also need to work closely with educational providers as the catalysts of change such as MCAST to support further academic and practical training in both agriculture and horticulture.”

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