25 July 2001

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Louis Naudi

Photos by Paul Blandford

What prompted the setting up of the Malta Agriculture Lobby?

The idea of forming an umbrella organisation had been in the minds of many operators within the sector for some time.

Unfortunately, in the past, the practice was always for each sub-sector to be represented by either a co-op or organisation, with the result that the whole industry was very fragmented when it came to representation at a higher level.

A move was made to reunite the sector somewhat during 1996, when the government of the time appointed a commission on agriculture. It was hoped that the sub-sectors would look at these proposals with a view to finding a common policy on them.

But obviously things changed following the 1998 election and the new government’s declaration regarding Malta’s EU bid.

In light of this, and taking on board that agriculture is widely recognised as being one of Malta’s most fragile sectors where EU membership is concerned, a greater drive was made to form a widely representative organisation for the sector.

Unfortunately, although there was a lot of enthusiasm within the sub-sectors in the pre-launch phase, there has also been some scepticism and our start was bumpy. But we have tried to take on board as many organisations and individuals as possible who wanted to pool their resources, meet and talk with the aim of trying to form a common front.

While the lobby has put down roots locally, we are also gaining recognition abroad, and have become a member of the International Federation of Agricultural Producers, which is consulted at World Trade Organisation level, along with the strong EU farm lobby – Copa Cogeca.

What are your perceptions of the debates that have taken place so far on the future of Maltese agriculture in the EU?

Although there has been a great deal of talk taking place as regards agriculture and the EU, we have not really witnessed any debate of substance, where the important issues of policy reviews and how the sector needs to adapt or move ahead are studied.

Unfortunately, there is a feeling among operators that because of the political situation, the discussions have become something of a ‘for or against’ debate, which gives no help at all to the sector and is preventing operators from actively participating.

The majority of the operators in this industry are very conservative and certainly do not want to participate in talks that could see them branded one way or the other politically.

There has also been some frustration and annoyance that after years of nothing happening, everything is now being done in a rush.

We have been presented with reports and given very tight deadlines to produce feedback, which, unfortunately gives us no time to consult at the grassroots level.

The result of this state of affairs is that many operators have not grasped the meaning of what is going on or how they will be affected by EU membership and are simply carrying on with their current practices – burying their heads in the sand, so to speak.

Do you think the government should have done more to inform the sector of what is happening?

On the grounds that absolutely nothing has been done, yes!

Our lobby came up with a number of ideas, but unfortunately, none of them has been taken on board.

For example, in our EU familiarisation request to the government, we suggested an audio-visual scheme, using well-known traditional characters, which could be animated taking a tour of the Maltese agricultural scene and then that of the EU.

These sort of down to earth initiatives would help farmers and operators relate to the current local scene and compare it to what their counterparts are doing in Europe. They would begin to comprehend the adaptations that are needed for EU membership, but without being bogged down initially with too many technical details. The same goes for leaflets, which need to stick to dealing with the basics for now, to ensure everybody can relate to them. Granted, such schemes might be a bit costly, but I also view them as a necessity for the industry.

Many sub-sectors of the agriculture sector have a major hurdle with EU membership because they are so far behind the times. How did this happen?

One of the reasons that the agriculture industry hasn’t moved forward is that, unlike many other sectors, it has never had a strong lobbying voice.

Other sectors have excellent representation and have made their voices heard, getting the government to listen to them and therefore getting their interests served.

In contrast, we have no representation on the national forum and, part and parcel of the repercussions of this, is that there has been little serious debate on the issues that concern the sector.

We believe there is a need to create structures where serious debate can take place at the top, such as a committee on agriculture, which would call on operators for their input.

The conclusions from our lobby’s own meetings have been that many policies need a complete rethinking before the EU issue can even be discussed. How many people know, for example, that we are trying to deal with an agriculture sector that has been managed for over 40 years without a national agriculture policy?

The lobby would like to see clear-cut goals on Maltese agriculture, alongside the creation of a national policy for Maltese agriculture, which would eventually incorporate Malta in the EU, if this continues to be the way forward. Of course, we view the EU issue as a political one, but as a professional organisation we feel we have a responsibility to make sure the sector is prepared for membership and what it entails.

Is there a future for the Maltese agriculture sector within the EU?

Let’s be clear about one thing; our agriculture sector is in dire straits, irrespective of the EU question.

It was also clear that certain practices could not continue, and that growing consumer demands would have to be met, whether or not we joined the EU, with a perceptible shift of responsibility moving from the government side on to the individual farmers and their organisations.

Obviously the key issue to the future of the agriculture sector is the cost of improving quality, both to meet consumers’ demands and EU requirements.

I can tell you that there is a lot of willingness on the side of the operators. But of course, they have their reservations; after all, business has to thrive on profits. To persuade the operators that it is economically viable to make the necessary investment is a major challenge, especially when you consider that you are asking a sector that represents just 2.5% of the GDP to invest millions. And calculations have to take into account the costs of liberalisation.

Of course, the other side of the coin is what the government decides to do. Even if it is envisaging sharing the costs with the Union, it will still have to put in a lot of money before joining the EU, especially if it wants Malta to be competitive. And this is vital, since we have to be there alongside the other Mediterranean countries when it matters.

My perception is that at present, there is a lot of evaluation going on at the political level, concerning issues such as the viability of investment, and the impact of liberalisation. Undoubtedly, one of the main costs is the subsidising of the levies on fresh produce during the initial phase, since a large amount of money would have to be pumped into the private sector just to keep things going.

But on the plus side, politicians on both sides seem to be aware that the agriculture sector has many dimensions, be they environmental, social or even related to the tourism industry.

As long as the operators in the agriculture sector feel that they form part of a national, structured plan then they will feel confident and capable.

We might be one of the smallest agriculture sectors in the world, but we have always been capable traders and farmers and we have been around for 7,000 years. If we are helped in the right way and able to offer a quality product in a sustainable business environment, I don't see why we shouldn't be around for another 7,000.

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt