Food import bill hits RM34.2b as of August

MALAYSIA’S spending on imports of food has reached RM34.2 billion as of August, official figures showed recently, pointing to increased dependency on food purchases.

Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister Datuk Salahuddin Ayub said in a recent written reply to Parliament that the country’s food import bill has risen by an average of 6.5% per year from RM30 billion in 2010 to RM50 billion in 2018.

Malaysia imports most of its food from China, India, Thailand, Indonesia and New Zealand.

Government statistics showed the highest amount of import in 2018 were for cereals at RM7.1 billion, followed by coffee, cocoa, tea and spices worth RM7 billion and feedstock valued at RM5.9 billion.

The country also imported high amounts of vegetables (RM4.6 billion), fish and crustaceans (RM4.1 billion), fruits (RM3.9 billion), meat (RM3.9 billion), sugar (RM3.8 billion) and dairy products (RM3.8 billion).

The biggest import so far this year has been for coffee, cocoa, tea and spices worth RM4.5 billion.

Imports from China alone cost RM3.1 billion.

In a report by Malaysiakini, Deputy Agriculture and Agrobased Minister Sim Tze Tzin had listed over a billion-ringgit worth of imported fruits and vegetables which can be planted and produced locally. These included chillies, mushrooms, coconuts, mangoes and bananas.

Sim had attributed the supply deficit to a policy decision in the 1970s to plant oil palms to curb poverty in rural areas. Over two-thirds of the country’s eight million hectares (ha) of agriculture land were planted with oil palm, while 1.2 million ha were planted with rubber. Only 8% were left for agro-food.

The federal government is now working to realign the country’s agro-food sector as demand for food will only increase as the population grows.

Since the start of the year, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has called for an all-out reform in the agriculture sector which includes a change to the land management scheme under the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda).

Dr Mahathir said the current model, which sees settlers own small plots of land, has prevented rural farmers from harvesting greater yields and income. The veteran leader is now urging all farmers, including Felda settlers, to expand their cultivation areas by pooling their lands and diversifying their crops.

He described the ideal land size as being 1,000 acres (404ha) to 2,000 acres.

Speaking at the Felda Settlers Day 2019 in Pahang earlier in July, Dr Mahathir said: “From this, we might be able to take 80ha to plant other crops. For example, in Pahang, where the land is fertile, water melons and pineapples can be cultivated here.

“We want to avoid depending on a single crop by planting crops that have a higher demand, domestically and internationally, apart from helping the nation’s supply chain.”