Malaysia needs to re-vamp the way it addresses food production if it serious about achieving food security. The shift from an agrarian to an industrialised economy in the early 1980s caused a major setback in the agro-food production sector. After four Agricultural Policies, including the latest National Agrofood Policy (2011 – 2020), the agriculture sector still lags behind the manufacturing, food and ICT sectors, in terms of innovation related to knowledge content. This is in spite of having dedicated agencies for agriculture and volumes of research data and output from their research centres and universities.
For example local rice production has stagnated in the last thirty years and between 2016 to 2018, rice production decreased by 6.20%. Today, Malaysia imports between 30 to 40 per cent of its rice consumption mainly from Vietnam, India and Thailand. Among the questions that need answers range from why half the hectarage of available paddy fields are left idle to why new strains that produce high quality grains and innovations in fertilisers and culture systems from decades of research, have failed to enhance production.
At the same time, almost 100 per cent of raw materials such soybean meal, fishmeal and corn meal needed to support the feed industry for livestock and fish culture are imported. In the case of proteins staples such as poultry and fish, the period between 2016 to 2018 saw a paltry increase of 1.96% in poultry production and a 15.61% and 1.41% decrease in aquaculture and wild fish landings, respectively.
Our inability to increase self sufficiency in rice production and reliance on imported raw materials and protein staples leave us vulnerable to fluctuations in supply and changes in policy by exporting countries. Indeed a crisis now looms as the WHO and WTO issued warnings recently of an impending food crisis in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the possibility that governments will impose export restrictions on food supplies which will impact food security of importing countries.
The establishment of a Cabinet Committee on Food Security to formulate the National Food Security Policy by the current government, though timely, may not suffice in giving the much needed stimulus to jump start food production. Because food security is not just about food production alone, the restructuring of our national food agenda must take a systems approach that is comprehensive and integrated. Instead the food security agenda should be spearheaded by an independent Council on Food Security comprising of high level experts on food production, economists, social scientists and the industry.
Adopting a ministry-centric approach to food security is not adequate due to the interconnectedness between food production, environmental sustainability, economics, entrepreneurship, rural development as well as research and development. All of these transcend ministries.
Research, for example, is currently carried out by agencies in the several ministries of agriculture, higher education, as well as science and technology. Although funding is for food security with an emphasis on cooperation between these
agencies and universities, the dots still remain to be connected regarding what foods/products to focus on, what technologies to develop, what technologies need to be translated for large scale testing, and what socio-economics to study.
There is and has been a tendency for us to adopt successful models and technologies from other countries and this is something we must resist adopting in toto. Technologies are usually developed to suit local settings and resources, and may not necessarily work under different conditions or may have detrimental impacts on the land, soil health and environment.
Then there is also our readiness to use artificial intelligence and Big Data for smart farming on a scale than can elevate the agriculture sector from being a laggard to a pace setter in the economic value chain.
Thus, besides policy development, the council will be responsible for making recommendations on all matters related to food such as food supply, crop diversification, food reserves, and evaluation of technologies, including funding for research. These recommendations would subsequently be cascaded to the respective ministries for implemention.
This quintuple-helix planning contributed by the stakeholders themselves from the onset would allow for a holistic strategy towards solving the nation’s food security problems. It will also pave the way for a long term sustained food production plan that is not imperiled by changes in ministers or government.
The COVID-19 crisis has impacted not only the economy and health sectors, but food security as well, particularly in ensuring access to sufficient quantities of affordable, safe and nutritious food. Although there is no shortage of food, disruptions in the food supply chain began to emerge as the crisis unfolded but these were resolved speedily because of the extraordinary acculturation of the digital and virtual environments where online shopping became a lifeline.
However, the pandemic has brought to light the plight of not only the existing poor and vulnerable but we also saw the emergence of a new group of families who now lack the financial resources to buy food due to the abrupt loss of employment and income. Hence, although there was technically no problem about food supply, the same cannot be said about access to and affordability of food.
In other words, in spite of the availability of sufficient food, there are segments of society who have experienced food insecurity. This chronic and transitory food insecurity existed even prior to the pandemic; COVID19 merely underscored its potential severity.
Prolonged food insecurity can lead to a decline in health and problems such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and other chronic diseases because people in this predicament tend to consume inexpensive high-calorie nutrient-deficient foods (i.e., foods rich in refined carbohydrates).
Indeed, children in food-insecure households are prone to suffer not only health-related problems but run a greater risk of developmental and educational delays.
Therefore, when strategising for national food security, the proposed National Council for Food Security must make a distinction between the production of affordable and sufficient food staples such as rice, fish and poultry for internal consumption versus the production of high-value food for trade.
Achieving food and essentially protein security (for health) will be a challenge. The new framework should adopt a twotrack strategy which addresses food security and food insecurity independently. It needs to take cognisance of factors such as demographic trends and diversity, job preferences, infrastructure, access as well as availability of labour, water and land resources, and be designed within a Malaysian context to ensure the issue of food insecurity is appropriately addressed.
Ultimately, what is needed is high-level political commitment and prioritisation to produce food economically that will accommodate both the food-secure and food insecure members of our society. This indeed should be Malaysia’s agricultural new normal.