Pandemic shows us local is best, and farmers are rising to the challenge

COVID-19 reminds us how crucial farmers are in securing Malta’s fragile food supply. But will it be the wake-up call to farming from decline and concrete?

Jeanette Borg
Jeanette Borg

Jeanette Borg set up the Malta Youth in Agriculture Foundation (MaYA) to protect the interests of young Maltese farmers, and she has been vocal about food security with her call to fully use Malta’s idle uncultivated fields by facilitating young farmers’ access to this land.

Now the COVID-19 crisis has brought a new sense of urgency to these arguments.

So far, Maltese farmers have shown a remarkable ability to adapt to the radically changed circumstances. Necessity being the mother of invention, farmers, butchers and street vendors have taken up the challenge to reach their clients through pick-ups or deliveries to ensure continued farm sales and flexible options for families at home, with Facebook pages taking farmers to the commmunity.

This sign of vitality in the farming sector, one known to resist online marketing, could be one of the pandemic’s legacies, Jeanette Borg says, and with it, a renewed appreciation of local agricultural produce amongst the Maltese.

“Farmers are doing a great job in Malta in producing and delivering fresh produce to their clients. They survived a harsh dry winter but regained momentum thanks to the showers and cool temperatures we had a few weeks ago,” Borg says.

Panic-buying at the start of the pandemic had already exposed the fragility of food supply chains.  And fears of a second wave of COVID-19 may lead to an even stricter lockdown, prompting European leaders – including past advocates of globalisation like French President  Emmanuel  Macron – to start  addressing the issue of food sovereignity by putting local agriculture at the forefront of their decision-making bodies.

Moreover, in times of uncertainity, consumers also take greater comfort in fresh local produce. “The prospect of a complete lockdown which may halt imports may well have made us think more on our food security and sovereignity,” Borg says.

This prospect even led the Veterinary Regulation Directorate to issue a number of temporary permits to farmers who have the capacity to produce more livestock, in case Malta goes on a complete lockdown. This is a crucial issue for the MaYA Foundation.

“Food security and food sovereignty are two topics that should really be at the forefront of local authorities... but here we need a big push,” she says.

The crucial role of farmers in food supply has led the US authorities to map out the number of positive cases of workers in agriculture so that forecasts can be done to ensure food processing and distribution.

“This is the level of detail being considered about food production by others. Why shouldn’t we do the same?”

Borg acknowledges that Malta can never depend fully on its own production due to the high food demand of an overpopulated nation. “But certainly we can do more to safeguard farmers and the farms they manage. Unfortunately we still have high ranking officials who view agriculture as a minor contributor to the GDP... despite these circumstances, they still fail to see that food comes from the soil and not from supermarkets.”

Panic-buying at the start of the pandemic had already exposed the fragility of food supply chain
Panic-buying at the start of the pandemic had already exposed the fragility of food supply chain

While some measures have been implemented, we have continued to ignore the elephant in the room which stands in the way of food sovereignity: the amount of abandoned agricultural land and the lack of synergy between land use planning and agriculture. “As a nation, we cannot afford to have suitable agricultural land, especially government-owned land, to remain abandoned,” Borg says.

One major problem is that Malta has an ageing farming population. “However, there are several young people capable of working the land or producing livestock – through experience – who wish to do so as a part-time job or hobby, but are not being given the chance”. 

The MaYA Foundation continuously receives calls for support from young people who encounter land use issues. Some of them are not farmers but assist their farming families out of passion. “They encounter insurmountable difficulties to manage, take over part of their farm, or acquire land,” Borg says.

She describes the transferring of land as “an untangled cobweb” of bureacratic obstacles to the detriment of the farmers. The cost of land has became too high for farmers to afford.

“Moreover, a lot  of agricultural land is being sold as recreational land to non-farm owners who do not necessarily have the intention to become subsistence farmers.

“Not only are high rubble walls being built around these countryside enclaves but the arrival of new leisure-oriented residents in the countryside often leads to disputes with the neighbouring farmers, either because they don’t want to have bees around, either because the manure stinks or because the sound of the cultivator irritates them,” she said.

Which goes to show that the key to safeguarding the country’s food supply is to, quite simply, ensure that agricultural land remains agricultural land.

“We are seeing too many roads, residences and industrial sites budding, taking over fertile land. We are shooting ourselves in the foot,” Borg says.

Another problem is that older farmers find it difficult to let go. “Locally, we often find elderly farmers in their 80s or even 90s, who willfully want to keep land tenureship to themselves. Some may fear inheritance disputes. However, the inheritance disputes still happen, after they are deceased.” 

One major problem is that Malta has an ageing farming population.
One major problem is that Malta has an ageing farming population.

This can be avoided if elderly family members acknowledge and assign land to their heirs, leaving a detailed will. “This can be a very complicated process, however if it is done in the best interests of all family members, the results are fruitful.”

But an even better scenario is  when the assignment of plots of land is discussed in advance,  involving all family members. “We know of cases where young farmers have taken over land from grandparents and are happily managing it.”

But apart from implementing the concrete steps listed in the National Agriculture Strategy for Malta to revitalise the sector and facilitate the entry of younger farmers in the sector, it’s the “mentality” that remains the biggest obstacle.

“The Italians praise their farmers and boast about their products. We are still not acknowledging the potential of agriculture. Land speculators and nay-sayers have spread their negativity towards agriculture for their own reasons,” she says.

Many still discourage their sons and daughters in working in agriculture.

“As a foundation we praise those farmers who instil a sense of pride towards the land and their livestock in their children. Being a farmer should be categorised by educators as the profession that feeds the people.”