From the Farm to the Fork

 

 

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

Protecting the birds, reclaiming the countryside

 

turtle doves just shot

The abolition of spring hunting will lead to the protection of birds when they most need it. All birds will be protected, not just the quail and turtle dove.  Birds need our protection during the spring as it is the time of the year when they breed or are preparing to breed. Every bird which is shot during spring signifies that there will be one less nest and consequently there will be fewer birds in the following seasons.

The Birds  Directive of the European Union is an integral part of Maltese law since, and as a result of, Malta’s EU  accession in 2004. The Directive expressly states that EU Member States along migratory bird routes have a far greater responsibility regarding bird protection. This responsibility is spelled out in article 7(4) of the Directive where it is very clearly stated that : “In the case of migratory species, [member states] shall see in particular that the species to which hunting regulations apply are not hunted during their period of reproduction or during their return to their rearing grounds.” This applies to all bird migratory routes throughout EU territory without exception.

The Birds Directive is not a Directive about hunting but about the protection of birds. It does, however, recognise that circumstances may arise as a result of which it may be necessary to permit an exception, which exception is called “a derogation”. Exceptions are very well defined in article 9(1) of the Birds Directive (vide box) and these are the only circumstances in respect of which an EU member state may derogate from its obligations under the Birds Directive. It follows that whilst EU members have the authority to permit an exception, such an exception, or derogation,  must be within the three general parameters determined by the Directive. It is not a right but a tool for addressing the specific situations mentioned in the Directive. Readers will very easily notice that the permissible derogations make no reference to the killing of birds for fun – commonly referred to as “hunting”.

Member states permit thousands of derogations in their territory every year. Derogations in respect of birds that are considered agricultural pests or a potential threat to the safety of aeroplanes are the most frequent cases where derogations are permitted. I am informed that the list of these thousands of derogations all over EU territory does not contain one single case which refers to a derogation for the purpose of sports during spring. Malta is the only exception.

Being on a migratory bird route means that Malta has an international responsibility to protect all birds returning to their rearing grounds to reproduce. This return occurs annually during spring, hence the need to abolish spring hunting. It is a duty we have towards the international community in respect of all the birds migrating through Maltese airspace.

The abrogative referendum, in respect of which Malta’s Constitutional Court decided that no valid objections had been filed, will ask voters whether or not they agree with the regulations that permit a spring hunting derogation for two specific species: turtle dove and quail. These regulations are contained in the Framework for Allowing a Derogation Opening a Spring Hunting Season for Turtle Dove and Quail Regulations, originally published in 2010.

Voting NO on the 11 April  will protect  birds migrating over Malta during spring as well as restore back to the public access to the countryside at that time of the year. It will also eliminate the negative impact (through the sound of gunfire and the trampling all over the countryside) which will further help to attract and allow other breeding birds (not just quail and turtle dove) to nest in our country.

Currently, Malta’s countryside is practically inaccessible during the spring hunting season as one runs the risk of being showered with hunters’ pellets. Maltese families have very little access to the countryside when hunters are enjoying their spring derogation- and a number of them shooting at anything that flies.

This means that Maltese families and their children are being deprived of enjoying nature in all its splendour. We are all entitled to enjoy the countryside, which belongs to us all and not just to a select few. This enjoyment is currently being obstructed by the spring hunting derogation which the Parliamentary parties have been defending continuously.  It is about time that we reclaimed our right to fully enjoy nature in spring, while simultaneously allowing birds to continue breeding.

A total of 41,494 citizens signed a petition which has resulted in the abrogative referendum that will be held on 11 April 2015. This is a unique opportunity to protect the birds and help re-establish our families’ links with nature during the spring.  Let us use this opportunity well by voting NO, thereby rejecting the regulations contained in the spring hunting derogation and consigning spring hunting in Malta to the dustbin of history.

article 9. derogation

 

published in the Independent – Sunday 18 January 2015