Managing an agriculture crisis


Critics of the European Union often use in their favour the argument that the bloc should not use taxpayers’ money to subsidise farmers, as it does under the Common Agricultural Policy. A more balanced view would be that agriculture is not like any other economic activity. It has strategic importance for most countries, even if the economic fundamentals may not always be positive.

Yet, agriculture is facing threats on several fronts, from both natural and man-made causes.

Nearly half the EU’s member states have declared they are affected by desertification, under the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. Land-management practices are one of the leading causes of land degradation. Man-made factors have, over the last few decades, turned Malta into one of the member states most vulnerable to desertification. Political action at both local and EU level is needed to combat the risk of further land degradation.

A 2020 European Parliament briefing on desertification and agriculture in the EU confirmed a 2018 European Court of Auditors’ report that there is no EU-level strategy on desertification and land degradation.

Our representatives in the European Parliament should increase pressure on the European Commission to revise the Common Agricultural Policy to ensure that it provides farmers with more aid to fight the adversities of climate change, desertification and land degradation.

On the local front, Malta badly needs to invest in environmental security. Maltese farmers face an existential crisis caused by several factors that include climate change, soil salinity build-up, poor quality water for irrigation and unsustainable land management and farming practices.

Now, a new threat has arisen which could seriously damage the sector unless robust political action is urgently taken.

A recent court judgment held that the Agricultural Leases (Reletting) Act breaches owners’ rights to the peaceful enjoyment of property. This legal development effectively means that owners of land leased to farmers can increase the rent to an unaffordable level. If the tenants fail to pay up, they can be evicted. Some landowners will be hoping that,  after enough passage of time and after their land has been left to degrade, building permits will be issued with the potential of earning them windfall profits.

Neither political party wants to commit itself to enacting policies that would discourage further land speculation. This will only perpetuate a vicious circle in which the price of land will further

appreciate, property development will become even more speculative, landowners will be further enriched and more farmers will become impoverished.

The nationalisation of agricultural land is not a solution. Nor are direct subsidies to farmers who may then be reluctant to invest in more sustainable agriculture practices. However, a body that represents farmers, Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi, is right to call on the government to intervene in the search for a solution to farmer evictions, which will only accele­rate unless the judgment is successfully appealed. A sensible suggestion made by the young farmers’ lobby would be to revise rent prices so that landowners will be more justly compensated.

However, the price of such land should not be based on a speculative valuation of agricultural fields that could one day be granted development permits. It must be based on a formula that considers the value of the land as based on increased productivity following investment in the upgrading of agriculture practices.

Ultimately, it is up to our political leaders to save the local agriculture industry from extinction. They should start with a strategy aimed at compensating the owners of agriculture land more equitably while guaranteeing farmers the security of tenure that they need to invest in their future.

Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.