Malta in talks to test pesticide products abroad

Farmers denounce ‘unfair comparisons’ over illegal pesticides, saying Malta’s small size results in stockpiles of banned pesticides as big companies fail to register EU-compliant products

File photo
File photo

The Maltese authorities have started talks with another EU member state to enable them to test the chemical composition of pesticides found in the local market in a foreign lab, after a European Commission audit found that no such testing has been taking place since at least 2005.

“We have established communication with another EU member state to be in a position to utilise their laboratory to for the execution of formulation analysis,” a spokesperson for the Malta Competition and Consumers Affairs Authority (MCCAA) told MaltaToday.

This comes in the wake of a damning European Commission audit report, which says that the effectiveness of controls on pesticide use in Malta is negatively impacted by the lack of access to a laboratory with a capacity for “formulation analysis”.

The report revealed that no formulation analysis was carried out since the last EC audit in 2005, which had also denounced the absence of laboratory testing.

in 2020, some 10% of samples taken from domestically-grown products revealed exceedances of maximum pesticide residue levels in treated crops (MRL), while in 2019 these were almost 15%.

This is much higher than the average level of MRL exceedances in the EU for products, which amounted to 2.7%.

According to the audit, the absence of a designated laboratory for formulation analyses not only limits the scope of official controls, but also makes it “impossible” for the competent authorities to confirm that pesticides placed on the market are compliant with the authorisation requirements.

A call for tenders to identify and designate a laboratory for such a purpose was issued in July 2021. However, there was no interest from any laboratories in the EU, and therefore the tender had to be republished in September 2021. The EC audit also reprimanded the Malta Competition and Consumers Affairs Authority for not taking court action against widespread misuse of pesticides.

“The Authority has to date focused on high-risk areas, and since the audit, has updated its activities to cover other categories of users in line with the audit recommendations,” the MCCAA spokesperson replied.

The spokesperson also referred to key initiatives undertaken in the past months including “a recent overhaul of the Authority’s inspection framework”. In fact the Audit report says that Malta has in place a strong system that can support the implementation of the official controls. The MCCAA has also strengthened the quality and availability of training programmes for professional users of pesticides.  

Pesticide residue alarm

The European Commission’s audit revealed that in 2020, some 10% of samples taken from domestically-grown products had exceedances of maximum pesticide residue levels in treated crops (MRL), while in 2019, the exceedance rate was almost 15%.

This is much higher than the average level of MRL exceedances in the EU for products, which amounted to 2.7%.

One reason for this is that due to economies of scale, a number of EU-compliant pesticides are not even registered in Malta, MaltaToday has learnt.

According to the MCCAA’s spokesperson work is ongoing to improve farmers’ access to “a variety of pesticides with the objective of supporting better MRL results”.

Maltese farmers who are already facing existential challenges as local markets are swamped with foreign produce and more land is lost to development, have taken umbrage at what they see as “unfair comparisons.”

Speaking on behalf of Ghaqda Bdiewa Attivi, agribusiness expert Malcolm Borg described the comparison between pesticide residue in Maltese crops and European ones as “an unfair comparison”.

Borg noted that the average EU level of minimum residue (2.7%) takes into account products which are not produced in Malta and are “very low risk” when it comes to pesticide residues, due to both agronomic reasons or subsequent handling processes. This is because such residues do not accumulate easily on products like linseeds, cassava roots, rice, currants, which are widely grown in the EU but not in Malta. 

“This lowers the overall EU average and, for this reason, it is unfair to compare Malta’s results of residues on fresh produce with such average,” Borg said.

Why does Malta have a pesticide problem?

The audit by the EU’s Food Veterinary Office denounced a high level of non-compliance with regards to the sale of unauthorised pesticides. In fact, 47% and 43% of the products randomly checked in 2019 and 2020 respectively were not even authorised.

But according to Borg it is the small size of the Maltese market, which is the root cause of this problem. For whenever the European Union decides to ban a specific pesticide from the market, local distributors end up with stockpiles of the banned product because it is very difficult to sell it in a short period, simply because Maltese farmers use small quantities of products due to very limited areas of cultivation.

Moreover, when a farmer purchases a product to control a particular pest on a particular crop, such a product lasts a very long time and hence it would not need to be repurchased frequently. 

“Subsequently, the distributor finds it increasingly difficult to get rid of this stocked product since purchases by farmers would be few and far between,” Borg explained.

Moreover pesticide manufacturers often decide not to register their new products in Malta due to its small market. “So we are ending up having pesticides banned by the European Union but nothing to replace them with in Malta,” Borg said.

Borg considers this to be very unfair with Maltese farmers that end up with no options in their arsenals to control various pests whereas their competitors in other EU countries have the luxury of choosing from a wide range of such control products. 

Such new products are not even registered in Malta, yet still find their way in the local market. Borg asks “if such products are deemed acceptable (and went through the rigorous evaluation process) in other EU countries, why can’t they be used in Malta as well?”

The MCCAA is also trying to address this problem caused by the unavailability of compliant pesticides, which are not registered in the Maltese market.

“Work is also ongoing to improve access to a variety of pesticides with the objective of supporting better MRL results,” an MCCAA spokesperson said.

Moving towards toxic-free agriculture 

While it may well be the case that Maltese farmers face an uphill battle to survive let alone compete with foreign imports, the impact of pesticides on consumer health is undeniable.

Annalise Falzon and Anne Marie Apap from Friends of the Earth Malta referred to scientific research showing a strong link between pesticides and cancer, as well as brain damage leading to diseases like Parkinson’s. 

“We urgently need far more ambitious actions to reduce the use (and risk) of synthetic pesticides to combat the biodiversity and health crisis and ensure sustainable production of healthy food,” they said.

The organisation, which is currently holding an outdoor photography exhibition showcasing 10 Maltese farmers using environmentally friendly practices (page 16) is far from insensitive to the plight of local farmers.

In fact the organisation argues that Common Agricultural Policy subsidies and additional financial resources should also be directed “to support farmers in making the necessary transition towards a toxic-free agriculture”. 

But they insist that the ultimate goal should be a full phase out of pesticides, as demanded by 1.2 million EU citizens in the Save Bees and Farmers ECI (European Citizens Initiative), who asked for an 80% reduction by 2030 and a full phase-out of synthetic pesticides by 2035 to address biodiversity and health crises.

In the wake of the report, Friends of the Earth Malta is also calling on the authorities to increase and improve the efficiency of enforcement measures and penalties in the field of pesticide use. 

The NGO also pointed out that there seems to be a worrying lack of information on what happens with the disposal of unauthorised products.

FOE Malta has long been asking for an increase in agro-ecological farming practices. “The agricultural policies in Malta need to align with the European Green Deal, the Farm to Fork Strategy, EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 and other EU policies.”

This includes increasing the share of organic farming by a minimum of 25% by 2030 and supporting current farmers wishing to undergo the transition from pesticides-based farming towards agro-ecological farming practices.

FOE also expressed disappointment that the European Commission has postponed the proposals for a European Pesticide Reduction Regulation that should have been presented on March 23, together with binding Nature Restoration targets. 

“They are too weak to address the urgent health and biodiversity crises we are in. We need better and more ambitious regulation to ensure healthy food in the long term where synthetic chemical pesticides are used only as a last resort.”