Domestic food production should be a priority


BETTER strategies that could boost food production domestically should be initiated to offset the billions of deficit the country is facing as a result of heavy dependence on imported sustenance.

Petra Business School associate Professor Dr Ahmed Razman Abdul Latiff said the huge deficit could be seen via the importation of vegetables and fruits (RM6 billion), grains (RM5 billion), meats (RM2.9 billion), as well as sugar and honey (RM2.5 billion).

He said agriculture’s contribution towards the GDP has remained stagnant between 8% and 10% for the past 15 years.

Ahmed Razman added that allocations in the form of grant or microfinancing to entrepreneurs should also be supported through initiatives that would encourage the utilisation of automation and digitisation in the agriculture sector, especially among small and medium enterprises as well as individual farmers.

“The term Agriculture 4.0 should be used more frequently to highlight the importance of technology in increasing the efficiency of farming that could contribute to higher yield and better produce,” he told The Malaysian Reserve (TMR).

He said “precise agriculture” using the latest technology and robotic help should be further promoted. Incentives provided by the short-term National Economic Recovery Plan to help companies and individuals through microcredit financing, apprentice training and assistance to start agribusiness including cash crop agri, community agri and urban agri are in the right direction.

“These initiatives can be further continued in the Budget 2021. More importantly is the launch of the new Dasar Agromakanan Negara 2.0 starting next year with a heavy emphasis on food security. The 12th Malaysia Plan should also have greater emphasis on this,” Ahmed Razman said.

As Malaysia still depends on imports such as rice, mutton, beef, chilli and fresh milk, there is a need for the government to look into improving the food segment.

Analysts shared their worries by pointing out the cumulative 2020 food imports until May total RM23 billion, a 7.5% increase from RM21.4 billion a year ago.

Emir Research analyst Sofea Azahar said the figures are indicators which suggest Malaysia’s increasing dependency on food imports. She said continuous border closures could also result in food supply disruptions.

“Although it is not seen now, it might happen in the long term if other countries continue experiencing lockdowns which could affect the logistics on their side.”

However, the extension of border closure would not disrupt food supply in its entirety as Malaysia is rather self-sufficient in several food sectors.

According to the latest findings by the Department of Statistics, Malaysia has achieved self-sufficiency for various types of fruits such as watermelon (168.1%), papaya (150.2%), starfruit (146.2%), pineapple (105.5%), durian (104.8%), as well as vegetables such as spinach (113.5%), brinjal (115.4%) and long beans (107.2%).

Sofea said the ongoing Recovery Movement Control Order also allows a majority of economic sectors to resume operations including the transportation sector, which is vital to ensure a continuous flow of food supply.

However, she does not discount the possibility of a price hike on particular products in the longer run, especially imported food.

“Theoretically, it follows the market mechanism. When demand exceeds supply, prices will rise. Hence, food supply disruption is one of the contributors to price spikes.

“Even recently, food prices have been going up from 1.3% in May 2020 to 1.7% in June. For instance, the imported chilli (burung/padi), the price rose from RM3.08 per 200g in May to RM3.62 in June.”

Khazanah Research Institute researcher Dr Sarena Che Omar said while the country’s borders at the airports for human travel is shut, it is not closed for the import and export of items. She said the trade of goods is still ongoing.

“I don’t think there is a direct correlation between shutting the borders for travellers and food price fluctuation,” she told TMR in an email reply.

In the Global Food Security Index, Malaysia was ranked 28 out of 113 countries in 2019. This placed Malaysia below Singapore (No 1), but still well above net food exporting countries such as Thailand (52) and Vietnam (54). So, the notion that being a net food exporter equals food security is erroneous.

She said this means Malaysia’s food security isn’t dire, but it isn’t the best either, medium level so to speak.

“Most importantly when we study the scoring system, we scored the worst with regards to money put into agricultural R&D (research and development).

“So, to help our agrifood industry, we must invest more on R&D. As shown by international measurements, we are weak in it.”

She said food import per se is not an accurate reflection of food security, which involves so many other factors such as affordability, utilisation (cooking methods, food safety and nutrition), stability and availability.

“So, by addressing only import issues, but not affordability or utilisation, is wrong. What is the point if we produce all the food Malaysia needs, but the food uses a lot of unsafe chemicals, or we have all the food we need available at the supermarkets and markets, yet we choose to only consume instant noodles everyday.

“Having said this, being able to produce some of our food is good, although I caution against the obsession to be 100% self-sufficient on all food items. To be able to increase our food production sustainably and healthily, we do depend on good investments in R&D.”