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Do we care about our farmers? - Peter Agius

The question might appear rheto­rical. And yet it begs an urgent answer. Over the past few weeks, more out of coincidence than design, I found myself visiting a number of farms, greenhouses and open fields. Farmers of all sorts, from part-timers to full-timers, small and big, whether from Żejtun, Mġarr or Gozo, opened up to me and revealed a world of anxiety and doubt as to whether what they sow today will cover costs and feed their family tomorrow.

One of them best put it in political terms using the Labour Party’s electoral slogan: “It’s the best of times for everyone except for us!” he said.

As I dug deeper to find the source of this malaise, I discovered a complex picture with no quick fixes. But one factor appeared to be clearer than any other: our farmers are far from a priority for the authorities.

Let me mention just a few things that back this thesis. In January 2017, the government published a call for applications for EU funding grants for structural investment in farming facilities. More than a hundred local farmers applied, braving the bureaucracy, collecting several quotations, conforming to the published criteria.

The average processing period in other countries for these funds is eight months. A year and a half later the Maltese farmers remain blocked. No contracts have been signed, meaning they are impotent to launch their investment. Had they applied for Maltese citizenship at the same time, they would have got it already.

The pesticides saga is another painful pointer in that direction. Two weeks ago, this newspaper revealed that the environment ministry had shed doubts about the MCCAA’s testing of pesticides. The following week we had the very first reaction from the competent parliamentary secretary, who chided the MCCAA, saying it should set up shop next to the catamaran to test Sicilian produce.

Does he need to take to Facebook to suggest that a government authority move? And besides, is the lack of sampling of Sicilian produce the crux of the matter to set parents’ mind at rest that our food is safe?

Food proximity and security are imperative societal needs to be put at par with the attention we give to our services economy

Parliamentary Secretary Clint Camilleri’s admission of impotence is, in fact, the third and most damning pointer to the low importance that this government gives to farming. The EU funding breakdown is partly due to farming having ended up as the Cinderella of government ministries, requiring simultaneous prioritisation within the EU funds secretariat, the environment secretariat and the agriculture department. While we cannot pass judgement about the coordination efforts, we can all see the results.

The above episodes are illustrative of a bigger picture no less damning than the parts. Long-made promises of investment and reform in the pitkali system top the pile of daily frustrations for the farming community. What was meant to be a system based on trust is rife with mistrust. Reports of foreign imports seeping into Ta’ Qali are not uncommon. Foreign imports are systematically taking the lion’s share of the supposedly expanding local consumption.

At this rate, most farmers are setting their eyes on an exit strategy. Tragically or comically, this government is guiding the biggest farms in that direction with the new rules for agri-tourism establishments for holdings of 60 tumoli or more. For some farmers this may be good news. For the rest it means that they will be lonelier and weaker in representing their interest.

We are all set to lose if this trend carries on. Even if we don’t want to be romantic and recall the benna of Maltese peaches or tomatoes, food proximity and food security are imperative societal needs to be put at par with the attention we give to our services economy. This is even more so in a small island subject to amplified perils in case of a food crisis.

In my visits to farmers, not all is doom and gloom. Farmers are born with an entrepreneurial spirit rivalling that of any big businessman. They want to fight on as long as they see hope on the horizon.

For our own sake, let us give a clear signal that we care for their future.

Peter Agius is the former head of the European Parliament Office in Malta.

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