The Times, Friday, 30th April 2010
A seminar on sustainable agriculture was held last Saturday by the Green Foundation Ceratonia in collaboration with the US Embassy in Malta.
During the seminar, American students studying at the University of Malta (in the Masters programme for sustainable environment resource management) made some interesting presentations on sustainable agriculture.
To give some examples, one presentation focused on practices whereby agriculture can be ingrained in local communities. Here, residents can each own a share of agricultural schemes where fruit and vegetables are grown locally and then distributed to residents. Such a practice not only provides fresh and cheap products but also enhances interaction within local communities.
Another presentation focused on the development of "vertical agriculture", where agricultural practices are carried out in buildings, giving them life and, thus, introducing rural practices in urban settings!
Yet another presentation focused on how agricultural land in poor countries such as Ethiopia, Tanzania, Mali and Sudan is being sold to foreign buyers from different continents around the world, impoverishing local farmers in the process.
Those present in the seminar also learned about the successful eco-tourism projects of the Ager Foundation in Gozo. Here, tourists, both Maltese and foreign, interact and live in households of local villagers across Gozo while enjoying the best of authentic Gozitan food and drink.
The seminar also discussed agriculture on a global and local level, focusing on opportunities and threats in this essential sphere.
Indeed, technological advancement has had an impact on all productive activities and agriculture is no exception. Just to mention two examples in an industrial context, dairy cows can now produce more calves and milk than was the case centuries ago and crop yields have increased beyond anything that could have been achieved "naturally" in earlier times.
Yet, are we creating a Frankenstein monster? Or, as sociologist Ulrich Beck puts it, a "risk society" of man-made risks? Nature surely has its limits, yet can we draw a line?
At a global level, one cannot discuss agricultural sustainability while ignoring the political economy of this sector.
In the global context, one finds an aggressive business process resulting in a large-scale concentration of power of agricultural interests. Such interests have extensive economic power and political leverage in areas such as food standards, production methods and use of pesticides and fertilisers.
Farmers are often compelled to meet standards such as those imposed by the EU as, otherwise, they would be driven out of the market. Of course, Greens support upgrading towards sustainable methods. But one should be wary of agricultural policies that result in having farmers being dependent on big business interests, as is the case with GMOs and with pesticides.
In this regard, the first decision of Malta's European Commissioner, John Dalli - namely the allowing of a particular type GM potato - was surely not a step in the right direction.
More pressure is being exerted by big agricultural businesses to over-exploit agricultural land and animals. Ecological systems are being destabilised, animals are being treated as machines and small farmers are often passive spectators in all this. In short, people, animals, land and the ecology are being sacrificed for the profits of large corporations.
On a separate note, globally, agriculture is affected by climate change. This is of concern to small islands.
According to the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it is very likely that subsistence and commercial agriculture on small islands will be adversely affected by climate change. In the IPCC's words, "sea-level rise, inundation, seawater intrusion into freshwater lenses, soil salinisation and decline in water supply are very likely to adversely impact coastal agriculture. In some high-latitude islands, new opportunities may arise for increased agricultural production."
Looking now at the domestic scene, water usage is one of the most pressing issues. In a water-thirsty country like Malta, proper water management has become urgent. Judging by current trends of water usage, agriculture will lose out in the coming years unless the extraction of ground water is controlled and policies, such as recycling of sewage waste water, is introduced for agricultural purposes.
Various measures can be introduced to safeguard the interests of Malta's farming communities and, at the same time, promote sustainable agriculture. For example, Malta can be declared a GMO-free zone. Priority can be given to organic agriculture. Farmers' markets can be set up, where farmers directly sell their produce to customers. This would result in fresher and cheaper products and, possibly, higher returns for farmers.
This is not an argument that we should go back to low productivity and poor hygiene farming but a plea for rendering agricultural production more sustainable while safeguarding the interests of farmers and the consumers of agricultural products.
One should also keep in mind that rural development is often associated with a triple role for farmers, first as producers of food, second as wardens of the environment because rural areas sustain considerable biodiversity and, third, as embellishing the countryside and, therefore, attracting visitors including tourists.
The Ceratonia seminar showed that to have sustainable agriculture it is essential that farmers and local communities are protagonists and not merely passive cogs in a machine that dehumanises the sector while increasing exploitation of land, people, animals and the ecology.
The author is chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika - the Green party.