Ensuring food security during the Covid-19 pandemic

By DR SARENA CHE OMAR / Pic TMR

ACHIEVING food security is multi-faceted, involving factors such as food availability (supply), economic access (affordability) and utilisation (food safety and nutritional meals), among others. Of late, the subject of food supply has garnered a lot of interest.

The Movement Control Order (MCO) had triggered some panic buying. With more people staying home, cooking at home is on the rise. Due to more people cooking at home, we expect the demand for fresh food items at local markets and supermarkets will be high.

Despite the rising demands, we continue to enjoy uninterrupted supplies of food items with shortages only for face masks and hand sanitisers. But we should not take this luxury for granted and must ensure the continuous supply of essential items.

Food supplies in the country are either produced locally or imported. Red meat and dairy products are mostly imported from countries like Australia and New Zealand. While

tropical fruits are mostly local, temperate fruits such as apples and oranges are mainly imported from China and South Africa.

On the other hand, poultry, swine, fish, rice and vegetables are between 60% and 100% locally produced.

As different food items originate from different sources, their supplies are vulnerable to different factors. For imported food, we are vulnerable to international vagaries and policies of the origin countries.

For example, the lockdown in Australia to tackle Covid-19 may cause logistical challenges; we may face supply disruptions of meat and dairy products. These, however, are largely luxury items which are consumed in smaller amounts in Malaysia compared to other key food items. So, even if supplies decline and prices rise, the impact may not be as drastic.

Fortunately, staple food items like rice, vegetables, fish and poultry are mainly produced in the country.

In fact, for rice, Malaysia’s paddy farmers produce more than half the nation’s demand. Malaysia also has a huge emergency stockpile of rice which is sufficient to feed the population for at least half a year. Suffice to say, our rice supply is reliable as long as the supply chain from the farm to retail outlets is not disrupted.

What about the supplies of eggs, chicken, vegetables and fruits? Is the MCO restricting farmers from going to their fields or farms?

Working alone on a rural farm is not the same as working in a crowded mall or offices in urban areas. Farmers should be allowed to continue their tasks, while maintaining social distancing. But they ought to take the necessary precautions to protect themselves against the pandemic, while minimising disruptions to their work and income.

But there is still the risk that essential food items may not reach consumers. Besides allowing farmers and fishermen to continue with their duties, the other components in the food supply chains must continue to operate effectively, while adopting the safety precautions proposed to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Factory workers, transporters and wholesalers must be able to continue operating and ensure food items are safely processed, packaged and transported to consumers.

The wellbeing of the local food operators, their operations and the whole food supply chain are important to safeguard and ensure access to sufficient supplies of safe and nutritious food, especially during this crisis.

  • Dr Sarena Che Omar is a senior research associate at Khazanah Research Institute (KRI). The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of KRI, the newspaper’s owners and editorial board.