Should we stop eating Maltese peppers?

Should we stop eating Maltese peppers?

Of the 15 samples of local lettuce tested, none failed. But new pests have been ravaging peaches, forcing farmers to turn to costly pesticides.

Ivan Martin throws some more light on the latest pesticide tests carried out on Maltese fruit and vegetables – which had the worst results in Europe, as reported last week. The numbers don’t tell the full picture, he found.

All the peppers tested for excessive pesticides in Malta failed.

All of them…

The figure, from a recent EU report, sounds shocking – perhaps enough to put some off eating Maltese peppers altogether.

But a closer look at the figures shows how the results are based on tests conducted on just one single sample of Maltese peppers.

“This is nonsense. How can you carry out a study with such ridiculously small sample sizes, and then claim that it is reflective of the Maltese scenario? I’m a farmer not a scientist, but as a farmer, believe me – I know how to spot a load of manure,” an enraged Joe Gauci said from his Burmarrad field.

Peppers were not alone. According to the study, 50 per cent of the Maltese onions tested also failed. Guess how many onions were actually tested? Just two.

The Sunday Times of Malta last week reported how Maltese fruit and veg had once again failed the most pesticide tests in Europe, doubling the already worrying trend seen in previous years.

READ: Are there any pesticides on your plate?

The European Food Safety Authority’s latest study had found that more than one in 10 local greens taken to the lab in 2016 had been sprayed with more than the legal limit of chemicals. The European average was five times lower.

The dramatic findings sparked outrage among readers who were shocked to learn that pesticide use was so prevalent on the island.

“I buy local to try and be healthy. Reading this, I feel like never buying local vegetables again,” reader Simone Galea told this newspaper the day the story came out.

Ms Galea was not alone. She was among hundreds who took to social media to express outrage at unknowingly putting chemical-filled greens on their dinner table.

The situation, however, is a lot more nuanced than the study might suggest.

An itemised breakdown of the local produce tested by the Maltese regulator on behalf of the EFSA shows other instances of small sample sizes and mixed results.

Inspectors from the Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority looked for more than 700 types of pesticides and tested for an average of 147 different chemicals in every piece of fruit and veg put under the microscope.

EFSA said residues exceeding the legal limits were linked to 56 different types of pesticide.

A chemical called Bromide – analysed in summer salad favourites, lettuce and tomatoes – was by far the pesticide most frequently detected in Europe. But the chemical, it turns out, was actually not found in Malta at all.

We need to find an urgent solution before it is too late for peaches

And how did Maltese lettuce do? Fine. Of the 15 samples of local lettuce tested, none failed.

The same, however, could not be said for tomatoes. Thirteen per cent of the local tomatoes were found to contain too much pesticide. Again, farmers cast doubts on the figure, and according to the itemised breakdown only two tomato samples actually failed the tests.

“Thirteen per cent of nothing, is nothing,” another farmer, Ganni Vella, said.

According to the EFSA report, 178 samples of fruit and veg were tested in Malta – 41 per every 100,000 inhabitants.

Malcolm Borg, a deputy director at Mcast’s Institute of Applied Sciences, pointed to another problem with the research. He said only a handful of other European countries decided to take more domestic samples than Malta.

The Netherlands took 19 per cent of their samples from domestic sources, Finland 16 per cent, Bulgaria took four per cent and Malta took a whopping 74 per cent of samples from produce grown by local farmers.

“Bulgaria reports that a very small percentage of their samples had excessive chemicals but how can that be compared with our results? How can we say that Maltese produce has more excessive chemicals than the Bulgarian ones when only four per cent of the total Bulgarian samples were of domestic origin?” he said.

Around three per cent of the EU’s apples also failed the test, one crate of which was from Malta. Similarly, three of the 11 European cabbage samples to fail were grown here. Locally that represents a fifth of all the cabbages tested. It sounds like a lot, but again, that’s only three batches of cabbages.

Nearly half of the 23 peach samples that had been exposed to too much chemical residue also came from the island. The test results for local peaches were perhaps the most controversial.

The MCCAA inspectors tested 16 batches of Maltese peaches in 2016, and 10 of them failed – that’s more than 60 per cent.

Farmers did not deny these findings.

“Peaches are a problem. I don’t grow them myself, but I know of farmers who said they were having to spray theirs four times as much as they used to a few years ago,” Mr Vella said.

Why? A number of new pests, believed to have been imported along with foreign produce, have been ravaging local peach plants, farmers claim. They said they were being forced to turn to costly pesticides in the hope of saving some of their crop. “This is an issue and we need to find an urgent solution before it is too late for peaches,” a farmer said.

The Sunday Times of Malta sent a series of questions to the MCCAA regarding tests conducted for the study. Replies were not forthcoming by the time of publication.

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