'We Are Under Siege': Maltese Farmers Rally After Being Accused Of High Pesticide Use
Farmers warn that climate change, new pests, and inexistent quarantine are forcing them to resort to pesticides
A recent report by the European Food Safety Authority showing that more than one in ten Maltese products were found to have been sprayed with more pesticides that is legally allowed has come under fire by local farmers and experts as alarmist and not painting an accurate picture.
They said that the large majority of Maltese farmers work diligently on their crops year-round, only to have their reputation tarnished by this report, and are now producing their own pesticide test results to prove how it is only a few "bad apples" that spray their crops with pesticide beyond the legal limit.
"This is a matter of accuracy," said Joseph Farrugia, a seasoned Maltese farmer, to Lovin Malta. "Some chemicals found in the report had been banned from Malta via EU regulations for almost a decade, and we know that at least one Ta' Qali pitkali hawker was caught red-handed tipping foreign produce into Maltese pitkali crates - and who knows how many others are doing something similar."
Farrugia, an administrator of the farming community group Dilettanti tal-Agrikoltura, sigar u pjanti that represents around 12,000 Maltese farming enthusiasts, said that he and other farmers took umbrage at the report that seemed to paint all Maltese farmers as heavy pesticide users all while theres a majority influx of foreign produce into Maltese markets.
He explained the lengths he personally goes to year-in and year-out to prove the authenticity of his crops.
Photo: Matthew Abela
"Pesticides are very, very expensive and if we could, we would never use them" - Joseph Farrugia
"We are are certified in conjunction with a certification entity called GlobalGap, and we abide by their strict rules to ensure traceability and other things. Farmers who do this certification personally pay for it each year - it is approximately €1,100, and this is apart from the Maltese agricultural department certification, which take samples of potatoes and soil for analysis," he said.
He explains what these certification tests consist of.
"The checks that foreign inspectors do for certification are demanding - we keep a record of chemicals we use, where they are stored, how they are stored, the amount used, the amount left to the gram, and liquid chemicals are treated in the same manner," he said.
"Then, the authorities see if your sprayers are calibrated, we need to show them how they are calibrated for efficiency. They want to know and we have to present evidence on the amount of manure we use. We show and present evidence of the amount of artificial fertiliser we use per hectare... I think there are over 150 items on their check list, and I think that's as close to perfection as one can get - but unfortunately only a handful of farmers go to these lengths."
Pointing to the EU report, he remains skeptical: "we can never be sure if the tests were made on a product of Maltese origin since foreign produce is being dumped into the system. They assumed the produce was of Maltese origin even though out of 17 samples of lettuce only one was found to have a higher level of pesticide - and that case, which stood out from the other, was still way under the legal limits allowed."
Farrugia ends with a blunt statement about the state of farming in Malta in 2018.
"Maltese farmers are doing their utmost to protect their livelihood and that of the general public. Pesticides are very, very expensive and if we could, we would never use them, but climate change has triggered different types of fungus and bacteria which we never saw before, so using them is inevitable. Quarantine is inexistent locally, bugs are coming in like never before - believe me, we are under siege!"
"The authorities are taking a totally counter-productive approach" - Peter Agius
Peter Agius, who works for the European Parliament President Tajani and is a farming enthusiast himself, said that authorities are tackling this issue the wrong way around.
"You’ve got a majority of farmers who are very diligent people struggling to make ends meet in a very fickle business, and this should concern us all," he told Lovin Malta. "If they give up, if they don't manage to get their sons or daughters to take up the business, our countryside will bear the costs, and we will end up with neglected fields and a huge national food security threat."
Agius points out the importance of having healthy, locally grown produce instead of having to rely on foreign imports to fill our plates.
"It is essential to have local produce because what would we do in the case of a calamity, or in any case where foreign products are dropped, like what happened in the E.coli breakout 6 years ago? We need local farming, as a community, not just for the sake of the farmers, but in the national interest."
As Farrugia had pointed out, farmers are facing various issues, key amongst them the influx of foreign produce that has eaten away at Maltese farmers livelihoods.
"The situation we have here is this: farmers trying to promote their business as a huge surge of foreign imports come in and local supermarkets do not buy local products. These people, instead of getting all of our support, are now being branded as quasi-criminals because of these pesticides. It's very unjust to brand all farmers as dangerous because most of them have nothing to do with those bad apples."
Tarring the entire farming community is not the way forward, according to him.
"It is only a few rotten apples that are getting these results: the majority of these farmers are testing their products and finding them under the limits, or to have no pesticides at all," he said.
That said, any farmers that are found to be using pesticides beyond acceptable levels need to be addressed.
"One in ten is already too much, and it can become alarming for consumers, and the farmers need to know this as well, so we need to invest in farmer eduction. There are alternative methods where pesticides don't need to be used, and if you plan accordingly with the weather, sometimes you don't need to use pesticides at all. But farmer education has taken the back-burner," he said.
"Why?" he continued. "Because we voted for a European Union of standards, of food security and safety, and we have rules we need to observe, and an authority that is tasked to put it all into force, and they are taking a totally erroneous approach, because their approach is to spot the discrepancy, and what we should be doing instead of taking people to court - which can and should be done in some cases - is invest in farmer education and invest in people with the heart for the job who can commit to this field."
"Farmers are left alone and faced with a punishment"
Agius pointed out one of the most egregious issues farmers are faced with - being forced to send their produce abroad to have it tested since there is no local testing facility.
"The European Union has spent millions on subsidies and we still don't have a lab to test our own agricultural produce. Everything needs to go to Sicily, and usually farmers wait two or three weeks for the results. By the time farmers get their results, their produce would have been long eaten by our children," he said.
To make matters worse, Maltese agricultural testing and regulation is taken care of by the Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority who also have to ensure standards in various things like toys and tools.
"While some farmers are a bit less vigilant than others, they are not finding support from the community. Farmers are left alone and faced with a punishment, and we as a country are doing it to them," he ended.
"This is an eye-opener for Malta" - Jeanette Borg
Local farming analyst Jeanette Borg addressed some of the issues related to pesticide use in a blog post over the weekend. She noted that although 60% of cereal samples tested showed pesticide results, everyone was coming down on Maltese fruit and vegetable farmers.
"This report is an eye-opener. It shows that the real local scenario is as yet unknown, at best unclear, and much more needs to be done by all stakeholders. The authorities must wake up - the MCCAA and the Department of Agriculture have been completely silent. This shows a lack of interest and proactiveness towards the agricultural sector. No wonder many Maltese farmers have lost faith in authorities!" she said.
She echoed Peter Agius' call for further investment into Malta's farming community.
"There is a very limited support structure to tackle incoming pests from abroad as well as lack of training in the field of Integrated Pest Management," she said. "Education is definitely one of the sector’s immediate needs. Relevant authorities need to have their priorities reassessed. Farmers are losing their jobs and Malta is loosing its agricultural landscape, leading to more cranes and concrete blocks."