Reaction to article: “Farmer’s fears over slurry and food safety”

The Malta Youth in Agriculture Foundation reacted to the article written by Ms Caroline Muscat that appeared on the front page of the Times of Malta on Thursday 3rd April with the heading, “Farmer’s fears over slurry and food safety”.

The Malta Youth in Agriculture Foundation (MaYA) Foundation feels that although the particular case is very relevant, the article has been given too much weight and is damaging the reputation of the majority of farmers who are law abiding and do not have such issues. Since the situation of Mr. Paul Abela is localized, the relevant authorities need to take the necessary action to ensure environmental protection and at the same time avoid the whole farming sector from being effected by such damaging reports.

It is clear to anyone knowledgeable in the subject that the argument in the article does not make a distinction between slurry and sewage. Slurry is the liquid part of manure originating from farms while sewage originates from domestic homes. Moreover, the farmer is claiming that food safety is hindered with the application of slurry on crops. If slurry, which is the liquid fraction of animal manure, is properly applied in farming, it functions as a natural nutrient boost for the plants since its liquid form makes it more available for uptake by plants. One has to note that the application of slurry in Malta is prohibited without a permit from the Directorate of Agriculture. Such a permit is only granted if the slurry is tested for its nitrogen content and linked with the requirement of the soil and crop where it will be applied.

Slurry and animal manure have been applied on soil since olden times to fertilize crops and enhance soil fertility. This is particularly important in the Maltese context since Maltese soils are geologically young and lack organic matter. Nevertheless, Nitrates do not originate just from manure but also from imported artificial fertilizers which are used to supplement the crop nutrient requirement during the plant development stage. Artificial fertilizers provide a fast release of nutrients and thus have a different function from natural manure, which is released slowly after being diluted by water. The purchasing of these fertilizers from agricultural stores is legal and in no way obstructed by law.

The Nitrates Action Plan demands that all farmers produce fertilizer plans that are tailor made for the demands of their fields. These plans prescribe the amount of nutrients, including Nitrogen, which the farmer can apply in a particular field so as not to exceed the threshold implied by the Nitrates Action Plan. A fertilizer plan can be produced by testing the amount of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium available in the soil and calculating the requirement of the crops that will be sowed. This practice is being introduced with the farming community with the help of an information and communication campaign on the proper use of nitrates through a LIFE+ project entitled InfoNitrates. Reference to this project was made in the article written by Ms Muscat but the information supplied was incorrect since the InfoNitrates project is not yet completed as suggested. It is still in progress and will be terminated at the end of June 2014.

Apart from the use of fertiliser plans, the Nitrates Action Plan obliges farmers to spread manure onto their fields between the 15thof March and 15th of October of each year. This obligation is linked with the dry summer months so as to avoid unnecessary leaching of Nitrogen in water bodies. Therefore, the spreading of manure is illegal through the winter months, specifically between 15th October and 15th March of each year.

MaYA Foundation has been set up only very recently and is already working with authorities to find practical solutions for local farming issues. There is no doubt that authorities need to act upon cases of abuse such as the one reported in the above-mentioned article. However, one must bear in mind that an isolated case cannot jeopardize the reputation of a whole sector. We are thus looking forward to tangible action from the competent authorities and rapid follow ups of this and similar reports to stop such incidents from happening.

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