The question is not whether we will run out of physical land (although in a country as small as Malta this is physically possible), but rather what kind of society do we want to be. Do we want to depend on imports? Do we want to do away with agriculture altogether?
by Abigail Muscat
Image: Raisa Galea
The Maltese language has long conceptualised joy and misery in terms of physical space in words such as roħob, merħba or dwejjaq. It is interesting how having to share our meagre 316Km2 of land has seeped into our language long before our population reached its current size. And yet it is not surprising, because choosing what to do with this limited resource is a profoundly political, even, ethical issue. From ‘land grabbing’ and to the loss of biodiversity, globally, discussions about land use have become increasingly couched in moralistic terms. In Malta, the same has occurred with repetitions of ‘greed’ around new developments and the loss of open green spaces. The value of land however, is far more than the provision of green spaces.
Let us take agriculture. There is a concern that farming in Malta will disappear due to the market situation, such as the reliance of the livestock sector on imported feed or competition with imported agricultural products. However, we cannot pretend that the loss of agriculture is merely an after-effect of liberalized trade; it’s also affected by our land use decisions. Agricultural land can be thought of as ‘agro-ecosystems’, a concept that requires looking at the agriculture within a broader context. Building around agricultural land in such a small country is equivalent to its loss because the encroachment of urbanisation brings with it the loss of the important services that nature provides. The loss of these services can mean increased flood risk, soil loss and the destruction of the pollinators that support our food system.
Agriculture needs more than pockets of protection, it needs a landscape in which to thrive. Pushing out agriculture would not only mean losing an important economic sector, but it would mean letting the possibility of having more sustainable produce with shorter supply chains disappear, it would mean letting the value of a rural landscape disappear and most importantly it would mean letting the possibility of having genuinely delicious food disappear. We are lucky to still have access to tasty vegetables; an increasingly rare commodity in the industrialised world.
The global loss of farms that are tied to their landscape and the richness and history of that land has meant higher production rates, coupled with a loss of the quality of the product. I should know, I live in the Netherlands, ‘the country that feeds the world’ and one of the largest producers of tomatoes in the world. Yet they are only tomatoes in name. I cannot recall their taste because they have none; they are not our ‘żenguli’ or our ‘tadam ċatt’. In this sense I could not agree more with Karl Scerri from the Malta Youth in Agriculture Foundation (MaYa) that farmers have what it takes to provide better quality products than imported foods.
In all these senses, farmers should be aware of the value of their land in providing all these services and society should incentivize them to provide these services. A further caveat is their protection from losing land ownership to foreign investors. Farmers are increasingly being asked to sell their land for the growth of medical cannabis. With limited capacity to compete against cheaper imported foods, many farmers have seen this as a lifeline. The land grab in the wake of the legalization of cannabis across the world is a global phenomenon and has resulted elsewhere in the concentration of land in the hands of foreign investors with few ties with locals. If the same is to occur locally, it should be actively resisted. Instead, we should be encouraging our local farmers to keep their land and sell cannabis themselves if they want to.
Besides this, a degree of local production is the economically wiser decision to make, as opposed to being wholly dependent on imports. To quote my favourite pop historian, John Green, ‘trade can be a pretty weak foundation on which to build a polity’. He was referring to the city-state of Srivajaya, a successful trade-based state in Sumatra between the 7th and 13th centuries. Yet as history teaches us, the nation-state was short-lived as it places you at the mercy of the highs and lows of the international market.
At this point people often mention Singapore to me because it seems to be the obvious comparison for what we could, and even should become, as a small island with no resources and circa 50 years of independence from the British. Recently it has even become one of the most food secure countries in the world. Again, Singapore’s success, much like its medieval neighbour of Srivajaya, is highly dependent on how you define that success. Singapore’s educational system and economic development is virtually unparalleled and yet this came at the cost of 90 per cent of its forest, 67 per cent of its birds, about 40 per cent of its mammals and 5 per cent of its amphibians and reptiles making it one of the worst environmental offenders in the world. Whether you think Singapore is a success or a horror story depends on what you value, but it does offer us one example of what our future could look like.
Multiple land-use pathways are available to us and what we prioritise should be the charged, messy work of politics and ethics than that of economics and land use policy. The question is not whether we will run out of physical land (although in a country as small as Malta this is physically possible), but rather what kind of society do we want to be. Do we want to depend on imports and eat only imported food? Do we want to do away with agriculture altogether? Will we actively aid farmers to provide more than just food? Do we go for one island city and a few parks or do we leave space for wildlife? Will we erode the services that nature provides, or will we protect them? I am not here to give answers, but if we don’t start thinking about the answers to these questions, collectively and as a society, we run the risk of having an urban environment, a natural environment; in short, a landscape which none of us are happy to live in.