The local vegetable and fruit supply chain was under the spotlight last month. On 12 October, environmental NGO Friends of the Earth Malta organised a round-table at Vincent’s Eco-Farm at Żebbiegħ and published Agro-Katina, the result of its research tracking the food we consume, from apricots to zucchini. The report can be downloaded at https://foemalta.org/wp-content/uploads/AgroKatina-Report.pdf .
Maltese agriculture is characterised by small farm holdings, with three quarters of registered farmers working an area less than one hectare. With a hectare covering ten thousand square metres, this means that most local agricultural holdings are slightly less than nine tumoli in size.
Agriculture contributes a miniscule amount to the GDP – less than two per cent – but it is, however, essential to ensure the preservation of the rural characteristics of the Maltese islands.
Even though we are far from self-sufficient, agriculture can increase our self-reliance, thereby reducing our vulnerability to outside shocks.
It has been observed in the report that specific localities are linked to specific products: Rabat and Dingli are linked with onions, pumpkin with the northern agricultural region – primarily Mosta, Mġarr and Mellieħa – with cauliflowers being linked to Siġġiewi and Żebbuġ.
The report refers to the introduction in the local market of long, dark-skinned zucchini contrasting with the local round (or long) varieties of a lighter shade. As consumers overcame their hesitancy to a new product introduced to the market, local farmers started experimenting with growing it locally and, to their surprise, discovered that this variety (commonly found in Sicily and Southern Italy) had the advantage of being well adapted to the local climate.
Seasonality is still an important factor in agricultural planning, even though this is gradually on the decline primarily as a result of the competition from imported products which are available throughout the year. This seasonality is rightfully observed in the various village celebrations focusing on the availability of specific products: Manikata (pumpkins) and Mgarr (strawberries) readily come to mind. They educate consumers and contribute to a better understanding and appreciation of agriculture’s contribution to the country.
The report briefly refers to the “local vs imported produce” issue. It is emphasised that it only takes around 24 hours for locally grown fruit and vegetables to travel from the farm to the fork, hence ensuring that they are fresh, ripe and in season. This is not only reflected in a fresh appearance but also in an unmistakable advantage in terms of natural flavour and nutritional value, compared to imported produce.
Agriculture is the main user of water in Malta. It is also the major polluter of our water table. A study carried out in 2008 by the British Geological Survey on the nitrate contamination in Malta’s groundwater, commissioned by the then Malta Resources Authority, concluded that groundwater nitrate had been stable for the last 30-40 years. Notwithstanding, this has resulted in the contraction of the agricultural sector in the same timeframe.
The challenges facing agriculture in the immediate future are various. Climate change and the water crisis top the list. The changes in weather patterns will undoubtedly be a major headache. This will necessarily impact the viability of some crops, maybe bringing about changes to the season/s during which these crops are available. It will also possibly create the conditions for new crops.
The average age of the farmer is now around 55 – and this is not just in Malta, but across the EU. There is a growing awareness that we may be close to losing our farming community, in fact the impact of this loss is already being felt as it is fairly obvious that there are substantially fewer people protecting our countryside on a day to day basis.
The distance between the farm and the fork is increasing.
This is not good news.
published in the Malta Independent on Sunday: 12 November 2017