Transforming the Agribusiness sector

Malta’s local produce is quite extensive, ranging from agricultural products which are grown seasonally, to daily staple foods such as the production of milk and meat, and the harvesting of fish stocks, through fisheries and aquaculture. The sustainability of Malta’s food production systems is a crucial pillar not only for the local economy and the reproduction of the community’s social fabric, but equivalently for food security. The pandemic period, including the closures of major ports through which Malta normally imports food supplies, has incited concerns about local food production to feed the nation in time of potential crisis. As a result, the rural economies have continued to form part of the national priorities that the Government has consistently invested in for the pat 8 years, both through national and European funding.  

Today, the 29th June, marks a yearly celebration of the labour behind the production of food, L-Imnarja, a festivity that brings together the various niches of the primary sector, through a colourful showcase in Buskett Garden. This event has been cancelled for two consecutive years, however the Ministry of Fisheries, Agriculture, Food and Animal Rights has still launched a two-week virtual campaign to commemorate this day. When organised, l-Imnarja attracts both locals and tourists who fetch traditions linked to Maltese folklore, and to appreciate the bountiful displays presented by Maltese and Gozitan producers, including a wide variety of vegetables as well as different genres of livestock.

Malta’s farming community is comprised of land farmers and livestock breeders. The former practise two forms of farming, namely 1) irrigated farmland in fields as well as greenhouses where they grow a wider range of vegetables, and dry (arable) farming, which is seasonal, and which relies on rain to grow mostly fodder, onions, garlic, broad beans, potatoes and some permanent crops such as fruit trees, grape vines and olive groves. The livestock niche is focused on bovine, swine poultry and sheep, amongst others. On the other hand, Malta’s fishing community Mata is comprised of over 800 vessels providing for over 1000 full-time equivalents, focusing on different fishing seasons to meet market demands. The most profitable sectors comprise the bluefin tuna, which is also exported to foreign lucrative markets, and the swordfish as well as the dolphinfish.

Both the farming and fishing sectors are facing a dwindling population, that poses questions on the future of the agribusiness. Challenges lie on the fact that the prices of agricultural land are increasing, and the younger generation is finding it difficult to purchase their own fields to till. The same challenge exists in the fishing sector, as the capital investment needed to secure fishing opportunities, such a bluefin tuna quota license, had put an entry barrier to the upcoming fishers. In both situations, Malta has been facing a situation of an ageing population, a concern which is also echoed in other EU Member States.

Malta has been facing a situation of an ageing population, a concern which is also echoed in other EU Member States.

With the objective of turning such a difficulty into an opportunity, Malta’s Government has focused its efforts to facilitate the access of promising and genuine farmers fishers that are ready to undertake the agribusiness venture, by specifically launching a number of schemes aimed at the regeneration of the sectors. For the farmers, business start-up aid was distributed to assist young farmer who intend to engage in an agricultural activity as the main holders of a farm or land and are setting up for the first time. Similarly, the launch of over 100 bluefin tuna permits for fishers under the age of 41 years old was a means to attract more fishers to this maritime sector.

In parallel to the schemes launched by the Government for the new generation, further aid is being distributed to agriculture and fisheries enterprises to alleviate the hardships that this sector is experiencing during the pandemic due to the escalating costs and falling prices of the produce. A national promotional campaign ‘Agħżel Frisk, Agħżel Bnin’ was spearheaded in parallel to such efforts with the objective of promoting the consumption of local products.

These short-term measures are part of the national strategy that the government has developed for both the agriculture and fisheries sectors. A national ten-year policy for Agriculture is intended to steer the agricultural sector into a more sustainable direction by providing the means along which it can develop and flourish, whilst remaining within the parameters of the Common Agricultural Policy and other pertinent regulations. For fisheries, a national strategy is being formulated in line with the Common Fisheries Policy, with the aim of strengthening the economic, social and environmental pillars of the sector, without jeopardizing its existence into the future.

Malta’s future-proof plan for the food production systems is underpinned by a research framework that seeks to engender innovation within the sectors, also through various projects that will assist fishers and farmers in mobilizing and taking their enterprise to the next level. Such transformation, which is at the heart of the EU green deal and the EU Blue Growth, is being spearheaded by the recently-launched Agriculture Research and Innovation Hub (AGRIHUB). Such institutional shifts are not only providing the backbone of state-of-the-art research, but also strengthening the social and economic fabric of our farming and fishing communities for the current and upcoming generations.

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