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Pesticides: a broader perspective - Peter Agius

Whenever I’m passing by Mġarr I make it a point of stopping by one of the vans and stocking up on local produce, be it juicy strawberries or succulent melons. Like many parents, at home I try to bargain time on TV with my kids eating their vegetables.

We are brought up thinking that veggies are good – and they definitely are – but the recent pesticide tests released by the European Food Safety Authority risk shakes that confidence. For the second year running, tests on vegetables in Malta say that one in 10 products have pesticide levels above the legal limit.

In 2004 we voted to join the EU for better standards, safer products and wider consumer choice. On paper, we are doing everything required. We implemented EU laws in the agricultural sector, we have our own Pesticides Regulation Act and we set up a fully-fledged authority to take charge of that regulation.

On paper, we tick all the boxes. And yet, these latest results demonstrate a total breakdown of the system that is meant to protect consumers and guide our farmers on pesticide use. Having been close to the issues of Maltese farming myself for a while, I dare to point to a few factors which may be contributing to the current situation and to propose a few solutions.

The tick-the-box attitude is evident in the testing procedures themselves. Pesticide test samples are collected as per EU rules which obligate us to carry out a minimum number of tests. We send the samples to Sicily or Spain and then wait for the naming and shaming game to start.

We do not sample products as a matter of general concern for consumer safety or farmer guidance. Believe it or not, 14 years after EU accession, with €130 million in EU funds for the agricultural sector in the last six years alone, we still do not have the facilities to test local produce for pesticide residues. This means that by the time we receive the results, the product in question is a memory of last month’s menus and the farmer has passed on to the next crop.

If we do not lend a hand to our farmers today we will regret it in the years to come

There are many reasons for this breakdown. The farmers have their own stories to tell and the government officials in several departments will tell you their own too. All of them tell a truth of sorts.

Underlining all these versions is the collapse of the relationship between farmer and government. Up until a few years ago pesticide test results were nothing to write home about. Back then, while challenges existed, there was a closer relationship with the farmer. So-called extension services opened their doors for farmer advice in Żabbar, Mġarr and Gozo. These are no longer. On pesticide use, farmers now need to rely on the pesticide sellers. While licensed and professional, it goes without saying that these sellers cannot alone keep pesticide use to its useful minimum.

The current situation is worrying although not desperate. The farmer-authority relationship can be revived with some attention. Government services need to nurture young professionals with a passion for farming, serving as bridges and educators with the farming community. We need to invest, as a matter of urgency, in our own testing facilities, and deploy them as a preventive rather than as a punishing device. Given the alarming results we need to promote testing, also by offering it free of charge to the farmer.

Finally we need to stress that buying and eating local remains an absolute priority. This week on social media the #tajjebghaxMalti campaign was launched in support of local farming. If I happen to pass by those vans in Mġarr this week I will be stopping again. It’s not that I am not concerned about my children’s health, but I am also concerned with the future of farming in Malta.

NSO statistics for the last three years reveal an average drop of eight per cent year on year in the volume of local fruit and vegetables taken to market. With our population growing it is clear this decline is paralleled with the increase in imports of foreign produce.

While consumers should have the widest choice, the shift reflects the state of farming in Malta. We are essentially manifesting its slow and painful death. Very few youths in farming families would consider following in the footsteps of their fathers.

The reason is obvious for all to see. The business does not pay. While costs are rising and competition is harsh, farmers do not find much solace from anywhere.

This tragedy is not only their own. As an island, we cannot and should not depend entirely on foreign imports. Some of our grandmas can still relate stories of how rural communities were spared the worst of famine in the war thanks to local farming. We may never live to need it, however if we do not lend a hand to our farmers today we will regret it in the years to come.

Dr Peter Agius is the former director of the European Parliament Office and now speechwriter for the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani.

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