Land, anybody?

▪️ Land, anybody? ▪️ Poor Mona ▪️ Let’s do R&D ▪️ Malti, please

Agricultural land in Malta costs 22 times as much as it does in the rest of the EU, according to the European Commission’s statistics office.  in 2022, the average price of one hectare of arable land in the EU was €10,578, varying between a low of €3,700 in Croatia and €233,230 in Malta.

Meanwhile, the average price of arable land in the EU in 2022 was 45 times more than the average annual rental price of €233 per hectare, ranging between €843 per hectare in the Netherlands and €57 per hectare in Slovenia.  At least here, the price in Malta was towards the low end of the range, being €89 per hectare.

We didn’t need Eurostat to tell us that the limited availability of agricultural land and the pressure for alternative uses results in higher prices in Malta than in other states. The issue of a fair price for agricultural land has taken centre stage recently as farmers warned that fields were being sold off to the highest bidder as so-called ‘recreational land’.

In 2021, the Times of Malta found that one tumoloof land (1,100m2) was being advertised for at least €40,000.  Arable land in Rabat was being advertised at €266,000 for two tumoliwhile three tumoli with a large room in Siġġiewi would set you back by €1.5 million. The paper repeated the exercise a year later and found that  half a tumolo of ODZ land with one room in Dingli was being sold for over €100,000.

Farmers interested in acquiring arable land are being asked to fork out between €80,000 and €100,000 per tumolo. This is unaffordable for most, as an average of 12 tumoli are normally needed to start a full-time agribusiness and farmers make an average profit of just €200 on each tumolo of tilled land that produces three crops in one year.  The sale and sub-division of arable land not only drives prices up but makes it impossible for budding farmers to own their own land.

This situation made Judge Toni Abela remark, when presiding over a case in the First Hall of the Civil Court in its constitutional jurisdiction, that rural land should be valued for its agricultural yield, not for its recreational potential.  This might fly in the face of economics but is eminently sensible if we want to preserve agriculture in the country.

This is exactly what the government has now done, publishing guidelines on the prices of agricultural leases.  They will be assessed on a number of factors, including the depth of the soil, access to water and access to the roads.  Under the new law, farmers will now also be able to transfer land on which a building of more than 40 square metres is built, provided that it has planning permission and is strictly to be used for agricultural purposes. This was previously not permitted.

Moreover, lease-holders who transfer land with a building in it will have to enter into a contract with the Lands Authority binding them to make use of it only for agricultural purposes.  Farmers who lease their land from the government and want to build agricultural structures on their land will also be able to do so from now on. 

This is good as far as it goes, but more needs to be done.  Agriculture in Malta is on its death-bed and more reforms are needed.  Malta also needs to get its act together in the EU and press for higher consideration of the factors that make the tilling of the land, livestock rearing and agriculture, produce such precarious activities on this rock.

Poor Mona

A few weeks ago, two protesters hurled soup at the bullet-proof glass protecting Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre Museum in Paris, demanding the right to “healthy and sustainable food”.  I do not know whether the lady’s enigmatic smile turned into a grimace.  They really have it in for La Gioconda

The protestors said they were expressing solidarity with French farmers who have been protesting for weeks to demand better pay, less taxes, and milder regulations. “What is more important: art or the right to healthy and sustainable food?” they asked.

The farmers are right, of course.  European agricultural is sick and farmers are abandoning the land as never before.  So it is in Europe, so it is in Malta. But what does the poor Mona Lisa have to do with it?  Granted, she was painted against the backdrop of a view portraying an idealised landscape, but that does not make her a land-owner or a government bureaucrat.

It was not the first attack on the Mona Lisa.  Two years ago, a 36-year-old man threw a custard pie at her.  On that occasion, the protest was  because artists were not focusing enough on “the planet”, according to the vandal.  Since the start of the 20th century, the painting has had spray paint, cake, and a teacup thrown at it. On another occasion, two vandals tried to use a razor blade and a rock to defile it.

The Mona Lisa was even stolen by the Italian handyman Vincenzo Peruggia.  In 1911, Peruggia and two others stowed themselves away in a closet of the Louvre, hung around until the museum closed, and then took the painting with them, hopping on a train out of Paris.   Peruggia stashed it beneath the floorboards of his Paris apartment.

Two years after the theft, Peruggia made an attempt to sell the work to a dealer in Florence. The proposed sale backfired when the dealer called the director of the Uffizi Galleries, who obtained the work and called the police. Peruggia went on to spend six months in prison, and the painting was returned to the Louvre.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is probably one of the most beloved artworks in the world, seen by millions of people each year.  The Louvre considers It as the crown jewel of its collection, an archetype of the Renaissance.   The painting is impossible to value because it is seen as being priceless.

In short, the Mona Lisa has faced so much potential damage that even Salvador Dalí was oncemoved to speak on all the vandalism, attributing to the painting “a power, unique in all art history, to provoke the most violent and different kinds of aggressions.”

In 1963, Dalí wrote that the attacks on the Mona Lisa were of two types.  The first one was ultra-intellectual aggression, as perpetrated by the Dada movement.  In 1919, one Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp, drew a mustache on a photograph of the Mona Lisa, and at the bottom he wrote the famous inscription “L.H.O.O.Q.” (a gramogram of the French words ‘Elle a chaud au cul’, translated as ‘she has a hot arse’).  The second one was the primitive or naïve type of aggression, perpetrated by anonymous ‘more-or-less Bolivians’, consisting either of throwing a pebble at the picture or temporarily stealing it.

Of course, vandalism of artworks happens constantly.  Many people claim to be articulating a particular belief or to be inspired by some societal issue when they attack famous artworks.  Other attacks have been attributed to the mental disorders of the vandalists.

An infamous example of this happened in 1972, when 33-year-old (Jesus’s traditional age at death) Australian geologist Laszlo Toth attacked Michelangelo’s Pietà statue in St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City.  He wielded a geologist’s hammer and shouted “I am Jesus Christ — risen from the dead”, causing serious damage to the statue with fifteen blows. Toth was committed to an Italian psychiatric hospital.

Let’s do R&D

Research and Development is universally considered as one of the key ingredients for progress and adding value in an economy.  Except for a limited number of firms, it is severely lacking in Malta.  There is therefore reason to celebrate the inauguration of a new high-end research and innovation laboratory block for engineering students at the University of Malta.

The 25 laboratories and workshops cost €22 million to construct and were part-financed by the European Union. The project is part of an even larger, €39 million complex called TRAKE (Transdisciplinary Research and Knowledge Exchange), aimed at providing students with cutting-edge research facilities that will help them take their studies further, collaborate with researchers in universities abroad, and hopefully feed into new industries in Malta.

Prime Minister Abela was rightfully proud to inaugurate the complex, where students will conduct research on manufacturing engineering, artificial intelligence, automation and robotic engineering for vehicles, sea vessels, and aerospatial aircraft.  He said the investment signalled the government’s desire to put Malta at the forefront of technological advancement and prepare young people for the industries of tomorrow.

Photo: DOI/Jason Borg

The EU severely lacks investment in R&D.  In 2022, it spent €354 billion, or 2.23% of GDP.  That was lower than the 3.5% spent by the USA, Japan’s 3.37%, and China’s 2.4%.  Malta spent just 0.65%, putting the country almost at the bottom of the EU list.  If one looks at R&D in business enterprises, the gap between us and the rest of the EU is staggering.  While the EU spends €525 per inhabitant, we only spend €140   ̶   compared, for example, to Slovenia’s €402 per inhabitant or Belgium’s €1,195.

Economic theory emphasises the accumulation of R&D and human capital in explaining economic growth.  The evidence from various studies is that the national return on R&D   ̶   the total of private and social returns   ̶   ranges between 42% and 95%.  Not only that, but studies in OECD countries have shown that the social return is even higher than the private one.  This is because once an idea or a more efficient production process are invented, they will be copied or imitated by others.

As competition between countries mounts and global growth slows, the need to prioritise innovation and R&D has never been stronger.  But while most agree the link between innovation and economic growth is incontrovertible, it is also complex, and convincing policymakers of its importance requires constant effort.  In the EU, government expenditure on R&D in 2022 was €269 per person, or 0.74% of GDP.  In Malta it was €71.2 per inhabitant, or 0.21% of GDP, again almost at the bottom of the rank, compared to Cyprus’s €127, or 0.41% of GDP.

It is obvious that the Government needs to do more.  Again, isn’t this a case where the Malta Development Bank needs to intervene?  There is no doubt that there is a market failure that needs to be plugged.

Malti please

According to a survey commissioned by the Maltese Language Centre, 85% of Maltese say that foreigners living in Malta should learn Maltese.  Not surprising, given that the same survey revealed that over 95% of them consider the Maltese language as one of their main languages, compared to 12.7% who consider English as one of their main languages.

The survey did not say what percentage of the population speak Maltenglish   ̶   that irritating mix of the two languages which you can most enjoy on CampusFM, where many academics try to impress us with their command of the two languages and finish up as my comic book characters.  This otherwise vast fount of knowledge defeats its own purpose of disseminating it to whoever is listening by regaling us with speakers who use various versions of Maltenglish.  Oh yes, there are those who use the 50/50 version, others 65/35 or 85/15. 

I am not trying to ridicule the use of English for highly technical words, but do we need to hear somebody say “huwa importanti ħafna li l-artificial intelligence nużawha fl-industrija”, when they can use the Maltese words “l-intelliġenza artifiċjali”?  

Main photo: Polina Kovaleva

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