Food security: Five-point plan for Malaysia — Sim Tze Tzin


OCTOBER 2 — In 2021, Malaysia imported a staggering RM63 billion worth of food. The recent shortage of chicken and high food prices have created awareness of food security in Malaysia.

Politicians from across the racial, religious and ideological divides have held forth on this issue and rightly so.

At the recent United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), all head of governments are turning their attention from the Covid-19 to the disruption of supply chains for food and other needs that the pandemic caused.

Out of a sudden, food security has become a matter of grave concern.

Inevitably, questions concerning the issue have leapt from the periphery to the centre.

Nobody can be taken seriously who trivializes the importance of these questions.

As in all such transformations, people are apt to ask fundamental questions. Is Malaysia facing a serious food security threat?

The short answer is not now. Food security is measured mainly by four criteria: availability, affordability, safety and quality, natural resources and resilience.

Malaysia is ranked number 39th in the global food security index and second in Southeast Asia. Not a bad position, given that our agriculture sector, once the mainstay of the economy, has been neglected for many years.

However, the year 2020 and beyond has altered perspectives, compelling the weighing of issues about food, its cultivation and supply into matters of serious concern.

Four major developments have caused serious concerns on food security globally as well as Malaysia.

First and foremost, the lockdowns brought on by the Covid lockdowns caused global supply chain disruptions. It has changed the supply chain forever, including to the trade in food.

Secondly, the trade war and decoupling of China and US have spilled over to the food trade as well. The trade war will intensify in the foreseeable future.

The third factor complicating matters is the Russia and Ukraine war that began on February 24 this year. Prior to the start of hostilities Ukraine was responsible for 30 percent of global wheat supply and Russia was the largest fertiliser export country in the world.

The fourth and, likely, the most important development is climate change. The incidence of extreme heatwaves, followed by droughts, and unprecedented floods that occurred in countries like Pakistan, combined to reduce global food supply.

The scale and intensity of these disasters jarred climate change deniers out of their compliance and forced them to acknowledge that climate change presented a challenge that policy makers had to factor into their calculations of the future.

In Malaysia, achieving food security overnight became a matter of both government and opposition politicians had to reckon with.

How do we as a country prepare for the looming food security crisis?

I would like to propose five action items to make Malaysia more resilient in our agriculture and food industry.

A view of paddy fields in Sekinchan, Selangor October 31, 2020. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

1. Agriculture land reform

Land is key to all agricultural advancement. If more land is allocated to farmers, more food can be produced. Peninsula Malaysia currently has 8 million hectares of agriculture land. Around 6 million hectares or 75 percent are allocated to oil palm plantations. Another 1 million hectares or 12.5 percent are for rubber plantations. This leaves only 1 million hectares for all agro-food activity and this includes paddy, vegetable, fruit farming, ruminants, fish and shrimp cultivation. Limited supply of land has severely hindered agricultural advancement in Malaysia.

With limited land available, small farmers often face the multitude of problems. New entrant farmers have difficulty applying for agriculture land.

Small farmers are often given small land plots, averaging 2-3 acres. They also face short land leases, sometimes requiring annual renewals. As a result, they are unwilling to invest in technology and grow their farm business.

Ironically, big corporations have no problem applying for thousands of acres from the government. From Baling, Kedah, to Raub, in Pahang, to Lojing Highlands, big companies can obtain thousands of acres for durian and vegetable plantation agriculture. In contrast, small farmers can only dream of this bounty.

To ensure food security must be premised on agricultural land reform.

Reforms must take the shape of land redistribution. There must be a proper plan to allocate more agriculture land for food farming.

The available land must be transparent and open to genuine farmers. The land tenure must be long enough for farmers to grow their business.

The state governments must also work hard to eradicate rent seekers who lease agriculture land and rent it to farmers. This systemic problem has burdened genuine farmers and causes food prices to go up.

Agricultural land reform must be comprehensive and should cover all states in Malaysia. We must engage with all stakeholders — the state governments, farmers, the land code and all legal matters.

The solutions must also be comprehensive such that agricultural development becomes sustainable.

For Agriculture Land Reform to happen, I would like to suggest the Federal Government under Majlis Tanah Negara, which is chaired by the Prime Minister, take lead and commission a comprehensive study.

This top-down approach will ensure that the future suggestions and roadmap will be applicable to all states. State governments must not resist change. The current agriculture land restrictions have seriously curtailed the development of agriculture sector. For things to change, state governments must change too.

2. Technology in farming

Farming used to be seen as backward and unsophisticated. With new farming technology, modern farming is now a high tech, high investment business.

Modern farming can apply technology to the entire supply chain. Take vegetable farms as an example. Modern vegetable farming started from laboratory research to produce quality seeds. After that, farmers invested in modern greenhouses with IoT control of climate and optimization of fertilizer application to save costs and prevent wastage.

Modern vegetable farms can also use high-definition cameras to identify pests and release bio-control to control pests. Harvesting can also be done with modern automation system. Vegetable plant factories can also be set up in urban areas using LED lightings to replace sunlight.

Modern paddy planting can use GPS-guided, unmanned autonomous vehicles to plant paddy. Farmers can then use drones to apply fertilizers and pesticides. And use GPS guided autonomous vehicles to harvest.

These farming technologies are already in the market. In a few years, they will be fully commercialized and will transform the agriculture sector. Malaysian farmers must quickly change their mindset, embrace change and adopt these technologies in stages.

Technology can transform our agriculture sector into high yield, high efficiency modern farming. It will reduce production costs and make our ex-farm prices competitive. With higher yields and stable supply, we can import less vegetables and rice from abroad. This will improve food security in Malaysia.

3. Malaysia as agricultural export nation

Malaysia has long been a successful trading nation. We must not look inward into just thinking about self-sufficiency. Malaysia must work towards export-based agriculture. Our objective should be set at producing international quality farm products.

When we set national objectives as agriculture export nation, then our agriculture policies, education policies, and trading policies will change to support the national goals. We will then focus on qualities of our farm products to meet international standards. We will intensify our R&D to generate products based on importing countries. We will also refocus our education policies to educate more farming experts and agronomists. Our trade representatives around the world will also focus on finding new markets for our farm products.

Malaysia as agriculture export nation is not a dream. We have been successful in exporting palm oil to the world. We are currently a big exporter of shrimps to US and Europe. We are also exporting tomatoes to the Middle East. We are also exporting vegetables and poultry to Singapore and Brunei.

By making Malaysia as an agriculture exporting nation, we can greatly improve qualities and quantities of our farm products. By improving quality and yields, it will benefit the country in terms of food security and food safety.

4. Work on Malaysia’s comparative advantages

Food trade across the world started thousands of years ago. There were silk roads as well as spice trades from Asia to Europe. In a globalized world, international food trade will increase by leaps and bounds. Therefore, for Malaysia’s agriculture to thrive we must work on our comparative advantages.

Malaysia has several comparative advantages. Palm oil is one of the best crops that we produce. In terms of food crops, Malaysia’s tropical fruits segment such as durians, pineapples, poultry farming, fish and shrimp farming are success stories. We can further work on several emerging sectors such as modern vegetable farming to reduce our reliance on imports.

In 2021, Malaysia imported RM63b worth of food. It was alarming. But, if we improve our agriculture sector, we can greatly reduce our food import bill. If we further improve our comparative advantages by exporting more high value agriculture products such as palm oil, fish, poultry, durians and pineapples, we can improve the balance of trade and even make food trade a surplus!

5. Attracting agricultural talents and investments

Just like any other business, agriculture needs talent and investment. The major challenges in agriculture are long-term return on investment and the lack of talent in the sector. For example, investment into durian farms is big and will only start bearing fruit after seven years. Malaysian universities hardly produce graduates in agriculture. Without passionate farmers and experts, farms will fail.

To attract talent and investment, governments must encourage investments. When farmers see potential profits, they will invest and draw new farmers into the sector.

To be fair, the government is currently giving tax free incentives for agriculture investments for 10 years. However, the application process is long and complicated. Most farming companies complained that they fail to get the tax exemption status. The Ministry of Finance does not have enough expertise to evaluate investments in agriculture. They are currently focusing on big investments, while the vast majority of small farmers can hardly get tax incentives. I urge MoF to seriously reform the current tax exemption application process and system. It must be made easy for farmers who are often not sophisticated enough to apply for complicated tax exemption. When more farmers make money from agriculture, they will produce more.

In conclusion, the government of Malaysia after GE15 must have the vision and mission to tackle food security. I had the honor of being Deputy Minister of Agriculture, a stint that afforded me an understanding of our food security challenges.

It is not a dream to improve food security in Malaysia. It can be done. We need vision, right policy and right implementation to get there.

*Yes Tze Tzin is a former Deputy Minister of Agriculture. He keeps a keen interest in agriculture and has been actively helping farmers in Malaysia.

**This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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