08 MAY 2002
By Miriam Dunn
Although the retention or reintroduction of levies for the agricultural sector are not options that the Malta Chamber of Commerce supports, the organisation does believe that this industry deserves special consideration, according to its head, Reginald Fava.
The government and opposition have been at loggerheads over the removal of levies in the agricultural sector, recognised as being one of Maltas most sensitive industries. The Labour party has even gone as far as saying it will reintroduce protection for this area of industry, rather than implement a more humane timeframe of levy dismantling.
Mr Fava stressed that the chamber cannot agree with the reintroduction of protective levies, believing it would only push up consumer prices and concurrently act as a disincentive to local farmers to invest in their final product due to the fact they remain protected with such high tariffs.
"But the Chamber is, however, also aware that restructuring of the different agriculture and agri-food sub-sectors should have started a long time ago and allowance for this reality must be made in the planned removal of current protective duties," he added.
Mr Fava said that it is vital the agricultural sector now gets the help it needs to cushion the blow of levy removal.
"The chamber is fully in favour of the immediate launch of the various support programmes and complementary measures, funded by both the Maltese Exchequer and the European Union to help overcome these natural deficiencies and give Maltas agricultural sector and rural environment a competitive edge to move into the future," he said.
He warned that Maltese agriculture, as a whole will only be able to survive if adequately restructured within a clearly defined framework where all sectors know whether or not they have been targeted as a priority and a viable sector for Malta.
"Clear timeframes for the removal of these levies as well as the concurrent introduction of various forms of assistance to the primary producers are welcomed by the chamber," he said. "Concurrently, the chamber also believes that various aid measures, whether in the form of direct financial payments, more agri-friendly public policies or other support measures to the sectors concerned, are vitally indispensable for the various fragile and fragmented sub-sectors to survive in the competitive European and global market places."
Mr Fava added that the European Union should also play its part in helping Maltese agriculture to strengthen itself prior to membership.
"Besides the obvious importance of an increase in pre-accession funds and access to technical expertise across the whole sector, the unconditional and free access of Maltese agri-food products to the Single Market prior to membership will also help a great deal," he said. "The chamber has been in favour of such asymmetric access for Maltese products for a number of years."
Mr Fava said the chamber was aware that the way forward for the sector is not easy.
"But we also believe that now is the time to take the plunge for Maltas agriculture and agri-food sector to survive in the medium to long term and at the same time maintain its precious rural environment for the ultimate benefit of our future generations," he said.