Unlock potential of idle land to reduce food imports, says expert

For M’sia to reduce its food imports and to thrust on the path of becoming a food-exporting nation, various issues pertaining to idle land have to be resolved first

by BERNAMA / pic by BLOOMBERG

MALAYSIA’S food import bill that reportedly hits billions of ringgit a year seems irrational, considering the vast tracts of land lying idle in the nation that has the potential for agricultural development.

According to the Department of Agriculture’s (DoA) 2014 statistics, no less than 119,273ha of land suitable for agricultural use was left idle throughout the nation, with about 117,198ha located in Peninsular Malaysia.

Statistics from the Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority (FAMA) show that Malaysia’s fruit and vegetable import bill for 2018 touched RM8.5 billion, and RM8.9 billion the previous year. In 2015, its total food import bill came to an astronomical RM45 billion.

Malaysia’s dependence on food imports from China, Thailand, Australia, India and South Africa has made it vulnerable to inevitable price hikes which, subsequently, translate to higher food prices that burden consumers.

An indication of the extent of the idle agricultural land problem in the country can be seen in a study carried out by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Faculty of Social Science and Humanities senior lecturer Associate Prof Dr Azima Abdul Manaf in Kuala Pilah, Negri Sembilan (NS), in 2006 as part of her doctoral studies.

She found that the district of Kuala Pilah alone has 564ha of uncultivated land. Azima also outlined some of the reasons why all that agricultural land is left idle in that distric — namely land ownership legislation and multiple ownership issues, shortage of workers to till the land, the owners having attained old age and the attitude of villagers who prefer jobs outside the agricultural sector.

For Malaysia to reduce its food imports and to thrust it on the path of becoming a food-exporting country, the various issues pertaining to idle land have to be resolved first.

All Types of Land

DoA statistics show that Pahang has the highest acreage of unused agricultural land at 34,293.27ha, followed by Johor (17,855ha), Perak (14,507ha), Terengganu (12,309ha) and NS (10,309ha).

These land plots include Malay Reserve Land, Malay Customary Land, Malay Land Holdings and wakaf land.

And, according to the Department of Minerals and Geoscience, about 73,000ha of ex-mining land throughout the country have not been developed fully.

The National Waqaf Foundation had in 2016 stated that 24,000ha, or 80% of wakaf land in the country, has yet to be fully developed. (Wakaf is an endowment made by a Muslim, in the form of land or building, to a religious, educational or charitable cause.)

Universiti Tun Hussein Onn senior lecturer in land economics Prof Dr Ismail Omar noted that it is time to make a concerted effort to find ways to resolve the encumbrances hindering the development of idle land.

“There is no guarantee that all that land will increase agricultural output, but the availability of land area is certainly a prerequisite for the development of agricultural activities on a commercial, integrated and largescale basis,” he told Bernama.

NAP

Malaysia’s National Land Code 1965 defines idle or abandoned land as land with a minimum area of 0.4ha that has been alienated to a private individual or firm, but not cultivated for three years in a row.

Land defined as idle or abandoned usually applies to agricultural land. Ismail said Section 115 of the National Land Code empowers the state government, through the Land and Minerals Office, to seize any such alienated land if the registered owner does not cultivate the land within the specified period.

He said the land code and title document have the necessary provisions and conditions to maximise land use and curb the practice of leaving land idle.

“However, when the landowner flouts the conditions, the state government (which has authority over land affairs) often deliberates over the matter (and takes its own time to act), although the law allows them to take action (against the errant landowner),” he said.

Citing what had happened in certain countries in the past, Ismail said when the British administered Palestine from 1918 to 1947, they introduced a land law that allowed the government to seize undeveloped land plots belonging to absentee landlords.

This led to a large number of wakaf land plots in Palestine ending up in the hands of the government. And, when the British ceded its power to the Israeli regime, most of the wakaf land plots were transferred to the Jews.

In Kenya, Africa, its agricultural production fell drastically during the 1990s, which led to the government introducing a new agricultural policy.

“They increased the use of technology and introduced new marketing, storage, transport and packaging techniques (to increase agricultural output),” said Ismail.

In Taiwan, meanwhile, the government’s revised agricultural policy stressed on policies to protect farmers, further develop agricultural activities, guarantee product quality, intensify marketing efforts and increase the use of technology in agriculture.

“Their efforts led to good progress in their agricultural output,” he added.

Malaysia’s National Agriculture Policy (NAP) was first drafted in 1984. NAP1 covered the period from 1984 to 1991; NAP2 (1992-1997); and NAP3 (1998-2010).

The NAP was replaced by the 10-year National Agro-Food Policy beginning 2011.

In 2015, the agricultural sector contributed RM90 billion or 8% to the nation’s GDP.

“These figures have to improve,” Ismail stressed, adding that any nation which cannot meet the food needs of its population is considered “weak”.

“One of the things our country has to look into seriously is the attitude of the people who can’t see the economic value of their land…this is the reason we’ve been saddled with the issue of idle land for so long.”

Optimise Use of Idle Land

Ismail — who is also an executive committee member of the National Cost of Living Action Council at the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs — said the main issue is not about the physical state of the abandoned land, but all that potential which has not been harnessed.

“It’s a loss for the owners when they leave their land idle. Not only that, the people and the nation will also experience hardship when there’s no output (from the land),” he said.

When large tracts of agricultural land are not used productively, jobs cannot be created, foreign exchange cannot be earned and the government cannot optimise its collection of taxes. On the other hand, it has to spend billions of ringgit every year to import food for the people.

“And, this causes the cost of living to escalate,” Ismail said, adding that to address the rising cost of living, the government, private sector and the people should join forces to unlock the potential of abandoned agricultural land.

Idle Land Development in NAP

The government must formulate a more comprehensive agriculture policy to empower the nation’s food production sector so as to ensure food security for Malaysians.

The policy should also chart out long-term, medium-term and short-term strategies to develop abandoned agricultural land in order to optimise productivity, said experts.

Ismail, who is also Land Professionals Society of Malaysia president, said the NAPs thus far lack a proper approach to developing the vast tracts of agricultural land lying idle throughout the country.

Suggesting that the federal government — through the Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Ministry — appoint a group of land, agricultural and economic experts to appraise the NAPs, he said their findings may indicate the reasons for the existence of idle land.

“They must study the issue of abandoned agricultural land more deeply and then identify the causes for their existence from various angles. They must also review the policies and plans outlined in the policies,” said Ismail.

He said the lack of focus on the development of idle land has resulted in some 300,000ha of ex-mining land in various parts of the country — that is suitable for the cultivation of vegetables and fruits — left unused.

“The review of the policies should take into account past and current achievements (in food production), with particular reference to the link

between idle land and the productivity of agricultural land,” he added.

Ismail said a thorough and detailed study on undeveloped wakaf land would also shed some light on why its use was not optimised. According to him, only 12% of the 30,000ha of wakaf land in the country has been developed.

“As such, some amendments have to be made to the NAP to ensure optimum use of land,” he added.

Imports

Although Malaysia produces a wide variety of local fruits, it only exports a few fruits like durian, mangosteen and the ‘harum manis’ mango. (Pic:Bloomberg)

In admitting that idle agricultural land is a waste of resources and extremely detrimental to the interests of the nation, FAMA chairman Ishak Ismail urged the state governments to identify land that has been left idle and develop an inventory of such land.

“FAMA can help to connect the landowners to investors, cooperatives and commercial farmers,” he said, adding that through land leases and strategic partnerships, the two parties can benefit from the development of the otherwise unproductive land.

If all these land plots are put to good use, it could help trim Malaysia’s hefty food import bills.

Take, for example, its fruit and vegetable imports. FAMA statistics for 2017 showed Malaysia imported RM830.08 million worth of fruits from China, South Africa (RM518.43 million) and the US (RM467.24 million).

The same year, its vegetable imports from China came to RM2.48 billion, followed by India (RM538.32 million) and the US (RM405.86 million).

Ismail said although Malaysia produces a wide variety of local fruits, it only exports a few fruits like durian, mangosteen and the “harum manis” mango.

Pointing to the paddy fields that are no longer being cultivated, he said Malaysia now imports one million tonnes of rice valued at RM1.4 billion every year, with most of its rice coming from Thailand.

“We even have to import millions of coconuts from our neighbouring country, Indonesia.

“Our country has a lot of fertile land lying around. Land plays a very important role in our lives if it is administered properly, but many people don’t seem to be grateful for the land they own,” he said.

Food Security

Ishak says to enhance the confidence of these farmers, they have to be guaranteed of markets for their produce. (TMRpic)

Commenting on Malaysia’s dependence on food imports, Ishak told Bernama that food security is among the biggest strengths of a nation and that it can only be achieved if the nation’s food production is sufficient.

Besides idle land, another problem that has to be addressed is the fact that 80% of the farmers in this country are involved in subsistence farming and small-scale activities, he said.

“The small-scale farmers need assistance to identify crops that they can cultivate and can be marketed fresh or in a processed form.

“To enhance the confidence of these farmers, they have to be guaranteed of markets for their produce,” Ishak added.

He said the fruits and vegetables imported from countries like Thailand have an advantage over local produce because the lower production costs in their countries allow them to sell their products at lower prices. “As a country that practices a free trade policy, we can’t stop other countries’ products from entering our country. But, perhaps, the government can — through the relevant departments and agencies — tighten the procedures for the entry of food products,” he said.

Ishak added that the Health Ministry could, for example, conduct regular checks on imported food products to ensure that they comply with the Food Act 1983 and are free of pesticide residues. — Bernama