With just 13,000 hectares of agricultural land, Malta’s food producers have struggled in the consumer age of mass-produced and processed ready meals. But changing consumer tastes for more authentic natural food present an opportunity for the island’s micro-producers. The production of speciality food for gourmet consumers in Europe and Asia is a strategy for preserving and promoting Malta’s local, small-scale food producers.
The current enthusiasm for the healthy Mediterranean diet is being exploited by targeting this speciality sector with products like olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, fig jam and goat’s cheese. Potential also exists in aquaculture, and the aim is to emulate the successful Norwegian and Scottish seafood farming industries by cultivating a range of species.
Sun-dried tomatoes are produced locally in Malta
The Agri Sector
Today, Malta’s agri-food industry is tiny when measured alongside those of its European neighbours. Agricultural production and fisheries account for a little less than 2 per cent of Malta’s GDP, but the industry remains culturally and socially important, employing 18,500 people. However, over 90 per cent of farmers work part time, and only a minority of the 2,000 registered fishermen earn their livelihood solely from the sea. Farms normally cover less than one hectare, with the main crops being vegetables and fruits. The small livestock sector is focused primarily on dairy farming.
Malta has 16 wineries which produce around 1.5 million litres annually from grapes cultivated in Malta and Gozo. The fishing sector covers both traditional methods and modern aquaculture techniques. While the daily catch from traditional fishing boats mainly supplies local markets, the introduction of fish farming and tuna penning has resulted in an increase in seafood exports.
Zurrieq fish festival
While mass-markets are firmly out of reach, the island’s micro-producers have notched up some notable export successes in a number of niche areas with products including potatoes and tuna. The island has become an important supplier to the Dutch market, with the island’s floury-flavoured early season potatoes being exported almost exclusively to the Netherlands at premium prices.
The Maltese authorities are also convinced that further investment in aquaculture could create extensive opportunities. A few years ago, Malta was estimated to have supplied around 30 per cent of Japan’s frozen bluefin tuna imports; but EU-imposed quotas have seen a drop in industry output. The island’s new target is to increase the farming of ‘closed cycle species’ (CCS), such as sea bream and sea bass, while research is conducted into farming other species such as amberjack.
With consumers increasingly favouring organic and traditional foods, Malta’s agricultural sector also intends to capitalise on its natural food heritage by supplying premium products to international markets. This involves the promotion of traditional delicacies such as goat’s cheese, sun-ripened tomatoes, pasta sauces, herbs and spices, olive oils, honey and fruits. Malta’s food exports last year reflect the success of the niche market strategy. Exports amounted to €200 million in 2014, up from €130 million in 2011.
Agritourism is another path to sustaining rural livelihoods and has become part of Malta’s tourism offering. Farmers living on Malta, and in particular on its smaller sister island Gozo, are offering visitors an alternative way of holidaymaking. Tourists are invited to stay in restored farmhouses in small villages or in the countryside.
The outlook for Malta’s agri-food industry is mixed. Locally produced food has to compete with cheaper imports. Fragmentation and environmental issues also need to be resolved. On the positive side, aquaculture offers huge potential. Malta also has the potential of becoming a processing hub for produce from North Africa. However, in order to target foreign markets and consumers willing to pay top prices, the sector needs to change current production methods, marketing and sales.