Long-term strategy needed for food security, self-sufficiency

It must be driven by motivation to push for technology adoption through rigorous, intense R&D efforts

by NUR HANANI AZMAN/ pic by TMR FILE

THE country is in need of a long-term food security strategy that includes funding for research and development (R&D) in related sectors which would eventually increase Malaysia’s self-sufficiency, while reducing the country’s reliance on imports.

Khazanah Research Institute researcher Dr Sarena Che Omar said the global Covid-19 pandemic does shed some light over the importance of addressing food security from many dimensions.

She said it includes accessibility (both physical and economical); utilisation (knowing how to eat healthily and cook properly); stability (stable supply of food); and availability (matters related to self-sufficiency).

“For example, even if Malaysia can produce all the vegetables and chicken the country needs, and yet people cannot afford to buy it, it is still a food security issue from an economic accessibility point of view.

“Or, in another scenario, even if we are self-sufficient in all the key food items, but if a parent chooses to just feed instant noodles and nuggets to their children, it is still a food security issue from a nutrition point of view,” she told The Malaysian Reserve (TMR).

She said should a policy be introduced, it must be driven by the motivation to push for technology adoption, which is achieved through rigorous and intense R&D efforts.

According to the United Nations’ (UN) Committee on World Food Security (CFS), food security means that people have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food at all times.

Sarena said Malaysia was ranked 28th among 113 countries in the Global Food Security Index, which is relatively good (the country is ranked above net food-producing countries in the region such as Thailand and Vietnam).

However, in terms of weaknesses in the Global Food Safety Initiative scoring, Malaysia scored poorly under the R&D category at just 2.6/100.

On the contrary, Sarena said paddy — with rice being a key food item in Malaysia — has received the most amount of funds from the government compared to any other crops, which is as high as 40%-50% of the total budget allocated to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industries. She said more land should be given to the farming of food products.

“But more importantly, these lands must produce food sustainably and attain the Malaysian Good Agricultural Practices certification.

“This ensures food safety with regards to the use of chemicals and that the land is farmed sustainably,” she added.

EMIR Research, an independent think-tank focusing on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research, stated that manufacturers could be given tax exemptions or apply low tariffs on their imported raw and semi-processed materials for local food production to promote higher self-sufficiency in food supply.

In its article entitled “What We Need to Do to Ensure Food Self-sufficiency”, EMIR Research added that the policy should focus on ensuring more land made available for food production via land tax reforms and land distributive schemes.

“Crucially as well is the digitalisation of agriculture that will enable higher productivity, yield and quality of food produce, and allowing for suitable sites to be identified or earmarked.

“Implementation of smart technology via agricultural technology would revolutionise farming and agriculture,” the article stated.

EMIR Research media and communications director Jamari Mohtar said new policy directed towards propping up food production is needed as a big part of agricultural land in Malaysia is mainly used for oil palm and rubber, and not much for food crop plantation.

He said these differences should be re-examined and the findings need to be considered seriously in the draft of National Food Security Policy, to ensure it is holistic and sustainable.

Jamari said some of the additional measures include deepening the research on the agricultural sector, addressing small-scale farms with low levels of technology to increase food productivity and improving agricultural entrepreneurship.

“Besides that, Malaysia is a net food importer with imports making up about a quarter of total food supply. Hence, keeping a close eye on the supply chain is crucial, particularly in the light the Covid-19 pandemic that has caused supply disruptions.

“And it looks positive that the government has already set up a Cabinet committee to draft action plans for the National Food Security Policy to address food security issues in the short- to long-term period,” he told TMR.

To ensure food self-sufficiency, he said firstly, more funding should be provided towards R&D and innovation within the agricultural sector to raise yields and ensure sustainability as well as efficiency.

“Past studies have concluded that countries are unable to be self-sufficient due to natural resource constraints, including limited amount of available cropland, water and fertile soil.

“However, Malaysia does have all of this, but it is the matter of utilising them,” he added.

A recent research also revealed that roughly half of all the land allocated for paddy fields are not being utilised, although the government has departments to help look after various sectors in the agriculture industry.

Former Deputy Agricultural and Agro-based Industry Minister Sim Tze Tzin previously said only less than a million hectares were used for planting agro-food crops which make it insufficient to meet the demands of the people.

Therefore, land use policy could be used to designate agricultural land for food production.

There was also a proposal that a practical solution to encourage more food farming is for the government to gazette Felcra Bhd’s lands and other idle lands into “permanent food production” lands, instead of opting for Temporary Occupation of Land which would require annual renewal of land licences.

Jamari said such information and details need to be made known to the public, so that people will be more aware of what is happening and do something to tackle the issue.

According to the UN’s CFS, food security refers to people having physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meet their preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.

“As we try to address food sufficiency which is one of its pillars, it would certainly affect the food security in Malaysia.

“Although we are not in a food security crisis, we still need to prepare and treat Covid-19 as a ‘wake-up call’ for us to act fast.

“Malaysia remains dependent on food imports, but initiatives to be less reliant on certain food products and constant monitoring on food prices can help ensure food security, particularly in times of crisis,” Jamari added.

The potential for smart farming in Malaysia is great, especially with the usage of the Internet of Things (IoT) that has already been deployed in paddy cultivation.

For example, drones have been utilised for spraying purposes in the paddy fields.

According to EMIR Research, IoT can be used to measure and provide real-time data for farmers in determining irrigation and fertiliser levels.

“In neighbouring Singapore, sky farming is already well underway to meet the country’s food needs and ensure its food security.

“The plantation culture is dependent on both hydroponics and aeroponics,” it said.

Malaysia could also emulate Qatar, a country that has become one of the highest-ranked countries in food security, despite its geographical challenge.

It has been three years since Saudi Arabia and its allies imposed an illegal blockade on Qatar, and prior to the diplomatic standoff, 40% of the country’s overall imports came from its neighbours.

Being one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, Qatar is facing large-scale influx of expatriate workers which resulted in a tremendous increase in population in recent years.

The country’s limited land and chronic water scarcity as well as constraints in agricultural growth have led to growing concerns about food security.

In response, Qatar has begun to address the situation by aiming to efficiently utilise “cutting-edge technology” to establish a sustainable approach to food security for dry land countries.

The Qatar National Food Security Programme was established in 2008 and aims to reduce Qatar’s reliance on food imports through self-sufficiency.