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26th Jan 2020

Feature

Malta unable to solve EU organic conundrum

  • Geographical conditions in Mediterranean Malta make it difficult for farmers to produce organically (Photo: Peter Teffer)

The Dutch tried and failed. So did the Slovaks. Now, the Maltese also hit the old brick wall in EU talks on organic farming.

The file, which aims to introduce EU-wide rules for organic production, has proved too hard for the last three holders of the bloc’s rotating presidency.

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  • Sammy Cremona, producer of olive oil, said he did not see how organic production can be increased. (Photo: Peter Teffer)

Malta asked the other 27 EU member states on Monday (29 May) if they could agree to a new mandate and support a new compromise text. They could not.

Talks between member states and the European Parliament scheduled for Wednesday were cancelled as a result, which meant that an agreement is unlikely under the Maltese presidency that ends on 30 June.

Organic farming is more environmentally sustainable than conventional farming. It does not use chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilisers and often provides a better quality of life for livestock.

One reason why it has been so difficult to achieve a compromise is that the organics regulation which the European Commission originally proposed in 2014 was a mixed bag of rules that impacted a variety of economic actors, including farmers, traders, and retailers.

The proposed regulation tried, uniquely, to harmonise rules “from field to fork”, said Stephen Meredith of the Brussels branch of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), a lobby group for the organic sector.

He and his colleague Emanuele Busacca spoke with EUobserver earlier in May.

“Organic covers practically anything in food production, from crop production, to control system, import, to aquaculture. It covers ... labelling, retailing, everything. It's a very complex regulation,” said Busacca.

The Commission proposal on new rules on seeds, for instance, worried the largest agricultural industry pressure group in Brussels, Copa-Cogeca.

The group’s secretary-general, Pekka Pesonen, told EUobserver he thought the rules on seeds were too lax and could lead to lower quality.

“If the organic sector product doesn't fulfil the consumer expectation, as the qualitative aspect of the product itself, we are doomed,” he said.

Talks between member states and EU institutions are being held in the so-called trilogue format, which see representatives of the member states, MEPs, and the commission try to reach a compromise behind closed doors, instead of through a public second reading.

Wednesday's trilogue meeting would have been the 18th such round of negotiations - an unprecedented number.

Another reason why a compromise cannot be reached is because there are differences of opinion not just between MEPs, EU officials, and EU states’ envoys, but also within each of the camps.

If you take the member states’ camp, the feasibility of organic farming and the demand for organic products differs from country to country.

The share of organic land also varies from around 17 percent to nearly zero.

Malta's 12 organic farmers

In Malta, for example, the country that has tried to break the EU deadlock these past five months, organic farming is still in its infancy.

Journalists were recently brought to the Mediterranean nation on a press trip organised by the Maltese government.

There, Malta's agriculture minister, Roderick Galdes, said that despite the geographical constraints of the tiny country, he has high hopes for organic production.

“We have around 12 farmers who are very active indeed,” said Galdes at a press conference in Valletta on 23 May. “They manage to even find niche markets. There is a lot of demand for organic production in Malta.”

Not everyone who works in agriculture in Malta agreed, however.

The country's only producer of fresh milk, Malta Dairy Products, has no plans to offer organic milk.

“To have organic, normally you have to increase your land space,” said Victor Anastasi, a retired employee who now acts as a spokesman. “This is something which is not possible here.”

Malta Dairy Products is supplied by some 99 farmers, who own around 5,000 dairy cows.

Malta consists of two major islands, Malta and Gozo, that make up just over 300 square kilometres, which is only 12 percent of the EU's second smallest member, Luxembourg.

Malta's 450,000 inhabitants are not even half as numerous as the population of the Brussels region in Belgium.

“There are sections of the population who are demanding organic food, but it's not that much,” said Anastasi.

One important motive why dairy farmers switch from conventional to organic production in other countries - a higher price per litre of milk - does not exist in Malta.

Maltese dairy farmers are already getting a much higher price compared to the EU average, because they own 70 percent of Malta Dairy Products.

Difficult conditions

Sammy Cremona, who produces olive oil in Malta, also said he did not see how organic production can be increased.

“It's difficult for organic production in Malta, to start with, because of the conditions, and because of the size of the parcels. That is a big problem,” he said.

Malta's agricultural areas are highly fragmented, and every time a land owner dies, the land is divided between his or her children.

When an organic piece of land is so close to a conventional parcel, there is the chance of pesticide sprays drifting towards the organic area.

Organic wine

Maltese wine producer Marsovin has made the step towards organic production in one of its vineyards.

Its first organic wine was produced in 2016, which means it will be available next year, said wine specialist Bernard Muscat.

“The organic movement is still something quite new,” said Muscat, as he showed journalists around the Marsini vineyard on a sunny day.

Organic wine production is more difficult because of the danger of diseases when not using chemical pesticides, he said.

“In Malta we usually have high humidity levels. In terms of high humidity, that usually has effects in terms of diseases which might eventually then show up and affect the wines,” said Muscat, noting that the winemakers try to “prevent rather than cure”.

He also noted that the quantity of organic output is lower.

“However, the idea in our vineyards is always to make high-end wines. We are already in a situation where in particular years we could have produced five times as much wine. We are already used to that,” he said, adding that the market for organic Maltese wine is mainly international.

The journalists’ trip ended with a press conference in Valletta, also attended by EU commissioners Phil Hogan and Karmenu Vella.

“We do recognise that there are a lot of benefits in organic agriculture, and the European Union is supporting that,” said Vella, the EU’s environment commissioner, who comes from Malta. “But we also realise that the feasibility of this sector varies from one member state to another.”

He said the sector is “in its infancy” in Malta, but highlighted the small-scale of Malta's conventional agriculture. “Even the non-organic agriculture in Malta is sustainable because of … its size.”

From optimistic to disappointed in a week

His Irish colleague, Hogan, in charge of agriculture, said he was still “optimistic” that a deal could be reached back in Brussels on the organics regulation.

But less than a week later, on Monday, member states rejected the compromise text.

According to correspondence seen by this website, organics association IFOAM had told its members to lobby their governments not to accept the text. A source close to the EU institutions said the IFOAM pressure "played a big role" in the outcome.

IFOAM's Busacca told EUobserver on Monday that his organisation thought the text was “not ready”.

An IFOAM spokeswoman wrote on Tuesday that some of the proposed changes to the text would be “very problematic to implement” by farmers, that proposed exceptions to annual inspection would “affect consumer confidence”, and that several definitions and technical details were “unclear” or contained “evident mistakes”.

An EU commission spokesperson called the rejection “disappointing”, but said that trilogue discussions must continue.

Meanwhile, a qualification about the negotiators made by Busacca, earlier this month, still applies.

“I think in many institutions people are exhausted and a bit fed up,” he said, adding that being tired is not “the best condition” in which to agree on a well-designed law.

Getting secret EU trilogue documents: a case study

On Thursday, the European Parliament will vote on a political deal on organic farming, following 19 months of behind-closed-doors negotiations. EUobserver here details a five-month odyssey to get access to the secret documents that led to the deal.

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