When the last field is gone, we will realise that... you can't eat tarmac

In the latest case, the threat was caused by a microscopic virus imported from China in 2019. (Cue to obligatory LOTR quote: “Is it not a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt for so small a thing? So small a thing…!”

Excavators working on the Central Link Project
Excavators working on the Central Link Project

It seems to have gone largely unnoticed; but a couple of weeks ago, Economy Minister Clyde Caruana admitted in an interview that Malta faced the real threat of a major food supply crisis last year, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My blood ran cold when we were discussing Malta’s food supply [between April and May 2020],” he told the interviewer. “We import most of our food and a lot of it comes from Italy, but workers in the Port of Genoa were planning to go on strike because they were getting infected with COVID-19 and wanted a raise. […] Had the Port of Genoa shut down, a substantial amount of food that’s imported to Malta wouldn’t have come…”

Whoa: hang on there, let me get this straight. Are we to understand, then, that the closure of a single Italian port last March – just one – could have plunged Malta into a full-blown food shortage… of the sort we last experienced back in World War Two?

Oh, OK, I’ll admit that’s a slight exaggeration. It’s not as though we’d have been driven underground by Junkers 87 dive-bombers, or anything like that (although who knows, really? Wars – like plagues – have always happened before, and can always happen again; and – unlike plagues – there is no chance of ever ‘vaccinating’ against them, either).

But no, I reckon the emergency envisaged by Clyde Caruana was more along the lines of the ‘Toilet Paper Wars’ we all saw breaking out in Supermarkets last March: only this time, people would be fighting in the aisles over the last can of tuna, instead of the last roll of Scottex Casa. (In other words: a struggle for absolutely vital necessities, instead of mere ‘luxuries’).

And in any case, we would certainly need at least a convoy or two, just to see us through the immediate crisis. For while a lot has undeniably changed since 1942… in some ways, this revelation only proves that our underlying vulnerabilities still remain exactly the same today, as they ever were in the past.

Now as then, we are still a country which depends on imports for around 90% of all its needs, including food; and – as Clyde Caruana was so ‘shocked’ to suddenly discover around 11 months ago – it still takes almost nothing at all to cut off our entire maritime and/or air-link to the rest of the world.

In the latest case, the threat was caused by a microscopic virus imported from China in 2019. (Cue to obligatory LOTR quote: “Is it not a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt for so small a thing? So small a thing…!”)

In World War Two, it was our status as a strategic military asset – so suddenly thrust upon us by the changing fortunes of war - to be attacked by one side, and defended at all costs by the other.

And the deeper you immerse, in Malta’s millennial history of dependence on maritime trade, the more diverse the reasons become.

The part we all know about the Sette Giugno riots of 1919, for instance, is that they were sparked by a steep increase in the cost of bread. But as recently-discovered documentation reveals, the inflation itself had been caused by a spike in the cost of insuring freight after World War I – mainly because of the lingering presence of unexploded mines in the Mediterranean.

Different circumstances, yes… but they still boil down to Malta’s sheer vulnerability, as a country with is (inevitably) over-reliant on imports.

Besides: in all three cases – and I could add ‘piracy’ to the list, to cover pretty much all the remaining centuries and millennia – we are dealing with a disruption (real or potential) of vital supplies, on account of forces that are entirely beyond our national control. And, well, that’s just as true of today’s circumstances, as it was for 1942, 1919, or any other point in Maltese history you care to name.

The only real difference, as I see it, is that the news of Malta’s extreme susceptibility – to scarcities caused by wars, plagues, natural disasters, market forces: you name it – only seems to come as a ‘shock’ today. At all other times, it was just a self-evident, unavoidable reality of life, that all Malta’s governing powers had to somehow factor into their plans, sooner or later.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is still reflected in all the laws and regulations they left behind. This is why - when it came to building Valletta, almost 500 years ago - the Knights insisted on a law that each household would have to have its own water-supply. (Or, for that matter, surrounded the city with granaries, to be permanently stockpiled with grain.)

Even without factoring in the possibility of a second siege to contend with, the Knights clearly recognised the limitations of Malta’s natural resources: well enough to be deeply concerned about possible shortages of vital supplies.

And this is also why – much closer to our times – the 1990s Local Plans originally afforded considerable ‘protection’ to Malta’s already severely-limited agricultural land (and with it, our capacity to generate our own food-supply).

It wasn’t just because the sight of farmers’ fields is so much more pleasing to the eye, than the unsightly concrete-and-tarmac landscapes we are choosing to replace them with today (though if it were up to me, that would be good enough reason on its own). No, it’s also in recognition of the uncomfortable truth that our ancestors were so clearly aware of, in their day… but which we seem to have lost sight of altogether: blinded, perhaps, by our collective drunkenness in the recent ‘years of plenty’.

Malta has, in brief, always taken steps to ensure at least a modicum of self-sufficiency, in preparation for leaner times ahead. (Not, mind you, that we ever were ‘100% self-sufficient’ in the past. It wasn’t even possible with a wartime population of 200,000; let alone today...)

But I know of no other historical epoch, in a country that has been inhabited for well over 7,000 years, when the authorities actually took steps to limit our production of a vital resource (still less, the most vital of them all: food). And I certainly see no historical parallel whatsoever, for what can only be described as a government drive to eradicate Maltese agriculture altogether, wherever it tries to put out a tiny shoot…

Yet that is precisely what appears to be happening today. Even as the Economy Minister learnt, to his horror, of Malta’s vulnerability in the food supply sector… other sectors of his government – arm in arm with Infrastructure Malta – seem to be enthusiastically ripping up untold acres of agricultural land, you know, the only thing that might prevent (or at least postpone) starvation, in case of prolonged disruption of imports, at every conceivable opportunity.

The Central Link project alone gobbled up “48,466sq.m of good quality agricultural land and 549 trees, including 272 protected trees”; and in Burmarrad, farmers have now joined forces with activists, against a proposed roundabout project that “would destroy arable land that has been worked for generations, as well as destroying a 500-year-old reservoir that the farmers of the area rely on for water in the summer months….”

And this, incidentally, is all happening at a time when the agriculture sector is already in deep crisis anyway. As recently as 2018, agriculturalist Prof. Everardo Attard had warned that: “Malta’s food security is not steady.”

Meat production, he pointed out, had fallen by 5% between 2015 and 2016, and fresh fruit and vegetables had dropped by 10.9% in weight during the same period.

“The amount of farmers has also decreased significantly. There was a drop of 68% of poultry breeders between 2001 and 2017, a drop of 40% of pig breeders and a drop of 45% of dairy cow breeders in the same period. Crop farmers have also decreased by 21%.”

Above all, Attard argued that the government should start supporting small farmers and livestock owners, in an effort to help them grow their own produce: “If we become aware of the real shortage in our food supply, we may start thinking of environmental stewardship.”

But instead of ‘supporting small farmers’, government seems hell-bent on doing the precise opposite. Not content with having watered down the Local Plans, to strip agricultural land of the limited protection it once enjoyed… they are now physically driving farmers off what little land they still grow crops on; and, in some cases, which their families have tilled for generations.

And what are they replacing all those fields with? Roads. You know: just to ensure that it won’t even be possible to revert the land to its original state, if (or when) the unthinkable one day does indeed occur… and Malta is once again being pushed to the very brink of starvation (as has happened so very often in the past: 1942, 1919; all the way back to 3,600BC, and beyond)…

Only then, I suppose, will we finally realise the ancestral wisdom of that ancient Cree proverb (or wherever the quote actually comes from): ‘when the last tree has been felled, the last fish caught, and the last farmer’s field asphalted over… only then, you will realise that you cannot eat tarmac.’

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