Why is local agriculture more sustainable?

26th March 2021

When buying your fresh produce, do you ask where it has come from? How has it been produced? Have they been treated with any chemicals? There are so many questions that should be asked, but many of us buy food depending on what is most convenient or the price. To help us understand how important it is to support local agriculture to be more sustainable, we have invited Jeanette Borg, Founder of MaYA Foundation to elaborate on this topic.

Can you let us know how the MaYA Foundation came about?

The thought of creating an organisation representing young farmers came about while I was in Estonia during a Press Trip organized by DG Agri within the EU Commission. I met a young farmer who was a representative of his organization and he shared with me the challenges and opportunities the young farmers were facing. The various similarities about what he said left me thinking and when I came back to Malta, I discussed the matter with some young farmers, including Karl Scerri and John Gauci, with whom the MaYA Foundation was originally set up. Having ‘one common voice representing young farmers in Malta and Gozo’ was deemed as a necessity and a right to all those youth who work within the sector such as producers, students, and other professionals, so the organisation was set up to tackle that first urgent need.

What is the role of this foundation in promoting local agriculture and sustainability?

The scope of the Foundation is to have a holistic overview of the whole agricultural sector in the Maltese Islands; from production to consumption, and with a broad view of the economic, environmental and social impacts.

Unlike other organisations where specific individual members’ interests are represented under one name, the Foundation aims to gather its insight from a vast spectrum of Supporters who are not directly benefiting personally from the affiliation and work carried out. However, by means of this giving approach, the different segments which make up the islands’ agriculture sector, and their different stakeholders, are supported through a bottom-up approach. This is done without bias towards specific sectors or individuals and allows for apolitical, independent and autonomous actions.

The objectives of the Foundation have been clear from the onset and made public for the sake of transparency.

  • To protect and ensure the best interests of young farmers on the Maltese Islands on legislative, competitive and marketing fronts
  • To promote all aspects of sustainable and diversified agriculture in the Maltese Islands
  • To cooperate with stakeholders on matters affecting Maltese agriculture
  • To serve as a medium for exchange of ideas and for dissemination of information pertinent to agricultural issues
  • To enhance the concept of fairly priced, quality agricultural products and services on the Maltese market place
  • To foster cordial relations amongst young farmers, in Malta and in the EU

Also, agriculture is a dynamic sector and as a Foundation we are committed to work on issues which are at heart to young farmers in Malta and Gozo. Every year we set a Manifesto and work together as a team to tackle each point as best as we can, as a voluntary organisation.

The 2021 Manifesto can be viewed here: https://www.maya.org.mt/manifesto

Local agriculture

How has the local agricultural sector been impacted with so many foods now being imported?

Upon accession to the European Union, all levies and trade protection barriers have been removed. The flooding of the Maltese market with EU agricultural products was, and is still, a challenge. We also have a situation where products are legally imported from outside the EU. Such products may be much cheaper than locally produced products, for several reasons thus imposing harsh competition on producers.

Although locally produced food products are placed on the shelves of outlets together with those originating from other countries, we believe that it is up to us to make them stand out from the rest. How? Through consumer awareness and education campaigns, ethical marketing, environmentally conscious packaging and proper labelling.

Why does eating local produce support greater local biodiversity?

Buying local can definitely help in safeguarding local biodiversity. Agriculture has been practiced for thousands of years and it has forged our countryside. It stands to reason that our biodiversity has been greatly affected by agricultural practices throughout the ages. Farmers have been breeding local varieties (plants) and breeds (livestock) to feed their families and the population. The production of crops and animals does not happen in a vacuum; it happens within an agro-ecosystem that needs to be managed with care and respect.

Over the past decades, agriculture has become more demanding in terms of resources, bringing about changes in the way farmers manage the land and their farms. Having said this, I feel that farmers are still the main environmental stewards of the countryside. Certainly, we need more training and research to ensure that we preserve and improve local habitats without compromising the only sector which guarantees food security on our islands.

Do you think that consumers are educated enough on how to make healthy and sustainable food choices?

Although the internet and social media have shortened the link between producers and consumers, we still have a long way to go. As MaYA Foundation we listen carefully to what consumers say, especially on social media networks while examining the farmers’ production methods, and strongly believe that there is a huge gap between the two. Price and convenience are still top criteria by which local consumers choose their food and we don’t blame anyone for doing so. However, we recommend that knowing where food is coming from and getting to know the farmer/s producing your food, is always the best way to learn about what lands on our dining tables!
This may require more effort and time, however when one acquires more knowledge about how the food has been produced while building a relationship of trust with the producer, then we can ensure that the food we put on our tables is healthy and sustainable.

What are the main questions consumers should ask about their food, whether at a grocery store or a restaurant?

Many of the products we consume go through a complex food chain. The shorter the food chain, the better it is, both for the consumer and producer. When consumers buy food from an outlet, they may enquire about whether the product has been produced locally. There are other ways to learn about how and where the item has been produced, which needs more investigation. This is not always easy given that most of us have busy schedules. Definitely, asking questions to the seller and making an effort to learn about the product itself is a good starting point.

We are also moving towards better labelling. Read the fine print on the labels, don’t rely just on the design and large font words which are naturally meant to attract customers.

Many local restaurants have also been making an effort to source local food and to support Maltese farmers. I would expect that if a restaurant is using local produce, this should be made clear on the menu or on the food outlet’s website. Restaurants and caterers who buy their ingredients from local producers, where possible, should be encouraged and supported.

Sourcing local products in Malta is sometimes tricky since many small producers do not have outstanding brands due to limited marketing budgets. However, we are indeed lucky to live in a small island where distances are very short. One can actually know in which field the product was cultivated, or on which farm was a ġbejna produced. This “hyperlocal” aspect gives producers an advantage to offer seasonal produce directly from their farms, and consumers a unique opportunity to ascertain the quality of their food.

To wrap up, what would be your main takeaways on how consumers can be more sustainable through their food choices?

I think that the key in making sustainable food choices is to have a balanced approach. Planning a shopping list is also crucial to avoid wasting time to buy food and throwing away excess food.

Preferring locally produced food is surely more sustainable for various reasons, health wise, environmentally, and, from a social point of view. Farmers produce food as a source of income for their families, and also because it is their pride in doing so. We can only support and encourage local farmers to continue doing their best by buying their products!

We acknowledge the fact that it is not always possible to have all the food in our households to be 100% local, that is why adopting a balanced approach is necessary. Finally, we need to invest more in our youth, the next generation, to appreciate the freshness of local produce and the benefits of buying local.

If you are interested in learning more about how your food choices affects the planet, watch our session dedicated to ‘Food for planetary wellbeing’ organised during the Malta Sustainability Forum, where Jeanette Borg participated as part of a discussion reflecting on the local scenario.