Rising demand and falling produce signals ‘hunger problem’ for Malta

Agriculturalist Everaldo Attard warns Malta could have a food shortage problem as demand outstrips local production

“Even if we see our stores and groceries full to the brim with product, the very idea of a food shortage could become a reality very soon: produce does not match demand, and our population is growing rapidly.”
“Even if we see our stores and groceries full to the brim with product, the very idea of a food shortage could become a reality very soon: produce does not match demand, and our population is growing rapidly.”

Everaldo Attard warns that Malta could also face a hunger problem in the future if its national agricultural output fails to match rising demand.

Prof. Attard said the Maltese agricultural sector was being abandoned quite rapidly, with children pursuing other industries and further education, and choosing to desert the land of their forebears.

“Malta’s food security is not steady. The Agriculture and Fisheries Report of 2014 proves that interest in the farming practice is dwindling. In 2013, 93% of farmers were all part-timers.”

He said meat production had fallen by 5% between 2015 and 2016, and fresh fruit and vegetables had dropped by 10.9% in weight during the same period.

“The amount of farmers has also decreased significantly. There was a drop of 68% of poultry breeders between 2001 and 2017, a drop of 40% of pig breeders and a drop of 45% of dairy cow breeders in the same period. Crop farmers have also decreased by 21%.”

Prof. Everaldo Attard
Prof. Everaldo Attard

On 16 October, Attard will address the third National Wellbeing Conference organised by the President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society. The conference, ‘Food Rights, Privilege, and Security’, takes place on World Food Day at the Verdala Palace. The Food and Agriculture Organisation is pressing for the termination of hunger by 2030, but global hunger is on the rise again: in 2016 it affected 815 million people, 11% of the global population.

“Malta is the only country in the European Union that does not have certification for its local products. What this means, is that locally-made products are simply not identified as being Maltese. Our products are not yet registered under the European Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) scheme,” Attard said.

This scheme allows a country to tell the market how a product was locally made, preventing foreign corporations from claiming their ownership of typical products from a region – real gorgonzola cheese, for example, can only hail from Milan in Italy.

“As it stands, anyone can claim that they produce the Maltese gbejna and it can be sold as such anywhere else even though it’s explicitly Maltese,” Attard said. “And it also means that the EU does not know of any health benefits or parameters of Maltese products.”

A pharmacist by trade, Attard is an expert on rural sciences and agriculture and invests his time studying plants in terms of their medicinal and cosmetic properties, where he represents Malta on the European Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products (HMPC) and is a consultant to Malta’s Medicines Authority.

One of Attard’s main concerns in Maltese agriculture today is the risk of pesticides to Maltese produce.

“The abuse of pesticides is putting Maltese produce at risk. And long-term pesticides can accumulate in the body as body fats. Nowadays, there are short-term pesticides that can diminish by the time of harvest. Still, there are abuses of pesticides on Maltese farms – such as putting too much pesticides, or even applying pesticides on new species of pests which ultimately also affect other harmless species.”

Attard argued that the government should start supporting small farmers and livestock owners in an effort to help them grow their own produce. “If we become aware of the real shortage in our food supply, we may start thinking of environmental stewardship.”

Attard points out that even British Prime Minister Theresa May has resorted to appointing a minister to oversee food supplies amid the Brexit negotiations, a prospect that fuelled fears of a food shortage about to take shape.

“It’s an eerie prospect for such a large and green country to have to panic on such an issue. And Malta, being so small, is all the more prone to such a problem. Even if we see our stores and groceries full to the brim with product, the very idea of a food shortage could become a reality very soon: produce does not match demand, and our population is growing rapidly.”

The observation ties in well with Malta’s own milk shortage, where the lower production of milk from cows during the hot months of the year and the inability to cater for the increase in Malta’s population over the last five years – especially with the influx of tourists in the summer months – has led to a rationing of fresh milk products across retailers.

Attard says the matter is compounded by Malta’s loss of farms due to exacting EU standards. “The EU asked for better standards, and Maltese farms were as a result forced to become smaller to keep up with these directives on health and food safety. A dairy farm is unable to produce pigs for slaughter in the same pen as dairy cattle because of EU rules. So, although standards have improved significantly, we have lost out on quantity of food production too.”

Attard makes a quick aside about the rise of veganism as a conscientious and ethical food choice that can reduce the resource-intensity of animal farming.

“Veganism could actually be a way of reducing the wastage of animals and their produce in the production of food, not to mention reducing the resources that are required to house these animals. But, of course, human beings will not simply get all they need from vegetable sources: you do need meat and animal products for certain vitamins you wouldn’t get anywhere else.”

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