Researchers stress urgent need for Malta food security plan

As food prices continue to soar, the heavy reliance on importation without having a sound food security plan ready at hand to be implemented and monitored as and when the need arises should be considered a major national security issue that needs to be seriously discussed, a group of academic researchers has urged.

In an opinion published in The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, four researchers from different departments within The University of Malta have come together to give a brief overview of the multi-faceted and interconnected issues that impact food security in Malta, underscoring how although these issues are known and acknowledged, authorities in Malta have yet to present a clear national strategy to address the issue of food security, especially in light of recent global events bring the matter pressingly to the fore.

Among the various issues addressed in the publication are the effects of climate change and the loss of agricultural land in Malta as the country becomes more arid. A recent World Health Organisation (WHO) report forecasts that Malta’s temperature will rise by at most 3.7°C on average and by at least 1.2°C by the end of the century (2071–2100 compared with 1981–2010).

Moreover, those elements that are known to negatively impact Malta’s climate, such as infrastructural projects to allow for more cars and the aggressive construction industry, also contribute to the loss of rural land, thereby decreasing Malta’s ability to produce food locally.

The issue of food security was previously underscored by the president of The Farmer’s Association when he spoke to The Shift in November last year. He explained that although Malta’s small size means it cannot be entirely self-sufficient when it comes to its food supply, it is crucial that the island safeguards its agricultural sector so that it can act as a buffer against the shocks of soaring food prices across the world.

When The Shift spoke with authors Thérèse Bajada and Margaret Camilleri Fenech from the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development and Rachel Radmilli from the Faculty of Economics, Management, and Accountancy, they noted that to date, the country’s large-scale urban developments currently take precedence over safeguarding environmental interests, and the role and work of farmers remain undervalued.

Food costs, access to food, and health consequences

They further noted that food security issues only come to the fore when there’s a crisis. Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the war in Ukraine are stark reminders of just how vulnerable Malta is to the sudden shifts in the global supply chain, especially since Malta imports around 70% of its food products.

Another consequence of the reliance on food importation and the resulting steep rise in food prices is access to healthy food – an issue that inevitably impacts those individuals living in low socio-economic conditions. This would include one in 5 (19.9%) of the whole population who are at risk of poverty or social exclusion according to the latest statistics including pensioners the proportion who now risk living in poverty has reached an all-time high of 22.1%.

The latest data published by the Central Bank of Malta found that food inflation in Malta has exceeded that of the euro area from April 2021 onwards and by April 2022, food inflation in Malta stood at 1.2 percentage points higher than the euro area.

If individuals are forced to opt for cheaper, less nutritious alternatives, the four researchers  observe, this will, in turn, affect their overall health and further “contribute to the prevailing chronic diseases afflicting the Maltese population namely cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, asthma, arthritis, and back pain”.

According to the WHO country profile for Malta, the overweight and obesity rates in Malta have increased over the past decade and are the highest in the EU for both adults and adolescents, with poor nutrition listed as a contributing factor.

Knowledge gaps and the need for action

Thérèse Bajada and Bernadine Satariano also undertook a survey asking Maltese residents to rate the following statement: ‘Maltese people should spend less on the importation of food and start investing more on locally grown foods’.

They found that of the 975 participants, 77% agreed with the statement and the three main justifications for responses reflected the following needs: to gain independence from food importation, to demand government support for the agricultural industry, and to enjoy better quality fresh produce including healthier organic options.

“The survey results suggest to us that the Maltese population acknowledges that there is a problem connected to food security and where the problem lies, but still take it for granted that we will always have food on the shelves,” Bajada told The Shift.

“We should also be investing in more knowledge locally,” Bajada said. “This would include knowledge about the origins of our food, agricultural practices, growing things locally as well as raising awareness about the effort needed to grow food”. She added that “Ideally we would have community gardens that would help people appreciate the effort it takes to grow food”.

When The Shift asked whether anything is currently being done to address the issue of food security, the researchers acknowledged that most awareness campaigns and/or initiatives are largely undertaken by environmental NGOs and small groups.

Meanwhile, the government has launched an emergency subsidy scheme for importers of cereal, flour, and animal feed who have been impacted by the sharp increase in prices caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, the scheme is temporary and aimed at importers, thus skirting the core issues. So does the speech delivered to the World Health Organisation by Health Minister Chris Fearne where he appealed to the organisation to prioritise food security and work with other United Nations organisations to find solutions.

“There is no clear, loud strategy by the government to address the issue of food security in Malta,” Radmilli observed when asked if any action has been taken by the authorities to counter the country’s reliance on food importation, the consequences of which are becoming more and more far-reaching.

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21 hours ago

To put it bluntly – the mafia will control food.

15 hours ago

Hello! About 10 years late!

Elizabeth Zammit Lupi
Elizabeth Zammit Lupi
9 hours ago

This has been coming for years! We favoured imported vegetables and fruit for local produce. We have not taken care of our farmers sufficiently, nor of our land. Immediate ACTION before it is TOO LATE!

Joseph Mifsud
Joseph Mifsud
9 hours ago

May I point out that the researchers forgot to mention that Malta’s treaty with the EU obliges Malta to provide ALL 500,000,000 EU citizens with property if they wish to buy property in Malta.
The question is WHY the EU commission didn’t apply the Principal of Proportionality Law on Malta and ban all foreigners from buying property on an island of 126sq miles ?

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