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5 ways towards ensuring food security
Published on: Sunday, February 19, 2023
By: Sim Tze Tzin
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Malaysia spends hundreds of millions of ringgit importing essential items like onions and garlic which is so unnecessary as the States have vast idle land.
IN 2021, Malaysia imported a staggering RM63 billion worth of food. The recent shortage of chicken and high food prices have created awareness of the food security situation in the country.

Politicians from across the racial, religious and ideological divides have held forth on this issue and rightly so. At the recent UN General Assembly (UNGA), all heads of government turned their attention from Covid-19 to the disruption of supply chains for food and other necessities that the pandemic caused.

All 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 trivialises the importance of these questions.

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

The short answer is not for now. The food security of a nation is measured broadly by four criteria: the availability of food, its affordability, safety and quality, and the state of natural resources and resilience of the food sector.

Malaysia is ranked No 39 in the global food security index and No 2 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 period beginning from 2020 has altered perspectives, compelling stakeholders to take up issues about food, its cultivation and supply, turning them into matters of grave concern.

Four major developments have caused serious concern about food security globally as well as for Malaysia.

First and foremost, the lockdowns brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic caused global supply chain disruptions. It has changed the supply chain forever, including for the trade in food.

Second, the trade war and decoupling of China and the 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-Ukraine war that began on Feb 24. Prior to the start of hostilities, Ukraine was responsible for 30pc of global wheat supply and Russia was the largest exporter of fertiliser in the world.

The fourth, and likely the most important development, is climate change. 

The incidence of extreme heat waves, 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 complacency and forced them to acknowledge that climate change presented a challenge that policymakers had to factor into their calculations of the future.

In Malaysia, virtually overnight, food security became a matter that 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 the agriculture and food industry.

Agricultural land reform

Land is key to all agricultural advancement. If more land is allocated to farmers, more food can be produced. Peninsular Malaysia currently has eight million hectares of agricultural land. Around six million hectares, or 75pc, are allocated to oil palm plantations. Another one million hectares, or 12.5pc, are for rubber plantations. This leaves only one million hectares for all agro-food activities, including rice growing, vegetable farming, fruit farming, rearing of ruminants and fish and shrimp cultivation. The limited supply of land has severely hindered agricultural advancement in Malaysia.

With limited land available, small farmers often face a multitude of problems. New entrants to farming have difficulty applying for agricultural land.

Small farmers are often given small plots of land, averaging two to three acres. They also face short land leases, which sometimes require 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 in Kedah to Raub in Pahang, to the Lojing Highlands in Kelantan, big companies can obtain thousands of acres for durian plantations and vegetable growing. In contrast, small farmers can only dream of this bounty.

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

Reforms must take the shape of land redistribution. There must be a proper plan to allocate more agricultural 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 work hard to eradicate rent seekers who lease agricultural land and rent it to farmers. This systemic problem has burdened genuine farmers and caused 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 and the custodians of the National Land Code — and all legal matters.

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

For agricultural land reform to happen, I would like to suggest that the federal government, through the National Land Council, which is chaired by the prime minister, take the lead and commission a comprehensive study.

This top-down approach will ensure that the recommendations of the council and its road map will be applicable to all states. State governments must not resist change. The current restrictions on agricultural land have seriously curtailed the development of the agriculture sector. For things to change, state governments must change too.

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. Modern vegetable farming started with laboratory research to produce quality seeds. After that, farmers invested in modern greenhouses with Internet of Things-based climate control and optimisation of fertiliser application to save costs and prevent wastage.

Modern vegetable farms can use high-definition cameras to identify pests and release biocontrol agents to control pests. Harvesting can also be done with modern automation systems. Vegetable factories can be set up in urban areas where LED lighting is used to replace sunlight.

Modern paddy planting can use GPS-guided, unmanned autonomous vehicles. Farmers can then use drones to apply fertilisers 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 commercialised 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 agricultural sector into a high-yield, high-efficiency modern farming industry. It will reduce costs of production 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.

Malaysia as an agriculture exporting nation

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

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

Malaysia as an agriculture exporting 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 the US and Europe. We are exporting tomatoes to the Middle East. We are also exporting vegetables and poultry to Singapore and Brunei.

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

Work on Malaysia’s comparative advantages

Food trade across the world started thousands of years ago. There were silk roads as well as spice routes from Asia to Europe. In a globalised 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 and pineapples, as well as poultry, 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 RM63 billion worth of food. This was an alarming situation. But if we improve our agricultural sector, we can greatly reduce our food import bill. 

If we further improve our comparative advantages by exporting more high-value agricultural products such as palm oil, fish, poultry, durians and pineapples, we can improve the balance of trade and even make food trade a surplus.

Attracting talent and investments in agriculture

Just like any other business, agriculture needs talent and investments. The major challenges in agriculture are the long return on investment and the lack of talent in the sector. For example, investments in durian farms are 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 investments, governments must incentivise 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 complain that they fail to get the tax exemption status. 

The Ministry of Finance does not have enough expertise to evaluate investments in agriculture. It is 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 the 15th general election must have the vision and mission to tackle food security. I had the honour 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 the vision, right policy and right implementation to get there.

- Sim is a former Deputy Minister of Agriculture


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