High dependency on imports should be minimised to improve food security and stabilise prices
by AFIQ HANIF / pic MUHD AMIN NAHARUL
MALAYSIA’S agro-food import stood at RM64 billion compared to exports of RM39 billion in 2021.
According to the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DoSM), imports of food accumulated to RM482.8 billion over the last 10 years, while exports amounted to RM296 billion.
It stated that in order to meet the needs and demands of the country’s consumers, food products from other countries — particularly onions, dairy products, coffee, wheat flour, tea, shallots, potatoes and cooking oil — have to be imported.
Meanwhile, according to the Household Expenditure Survey Report, Malaysia, 2019, these items accounted for 14.1% of the items frequently spent by households.
Malaysia is also heavily reliant on imports of mutton, mango, coconut and beef to meet domestic demand. As stated in the report, more than 70% of imported mutton came from Australia, while mango, coconut and beef came primarily from Thailand, Indonesia and India respectively.
Malaysia ranked 40th on the Global Security Food Index (GSFI) six years ago, with a heavy reliance on imports for essential food products. Following the Covid-19 pandemic, Malaysia is now ranked 41st on the GSFI.
Malaysia, in fact, does not produce enough food to feed its people and industries, with agricultural productivity being only 45% of the average for high-income countries.
To tackle the food security issue, Agriculture and Food Security Minister Mohamad Sabu said that the government is focusing on four pillars outlined by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), in line with the National Food Security Policy Action Plan 2021-2025 and National Agro-Food Policy 2021- 2030 (DAN 2.0).
“National food security and nutrition strategies, whether or not embedded in broader development or poverty reduction strategies, should be comprehensive, strengthen local and national food systems and address all pillars of food security and nutrition, including availability, access, utilisation and stability,” he said while delivering his New Year’s message to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security’s (MAFS) staff last week.
He said mechanisms should be created or strengthened to coordinate strategies and actions with new technology, involving multi-stakeholder platforms and frameworks at local and national levels for the design, implementation and monitoring of food security.
“This also includes strategies, legislation, policies and programmes, possibly by integrating multi-stakeholder mechanisms with national coordination mechanisms,” he added.
Increase in Food Input Prices
“Global crisis following the 4C factors (Covid-19, Conflict, Climate and Currency) has affected the poultry industry with the lack of chicken and egg supplies, follow- ing the increase in livestock input prices.
“This situation has forced the government to intervene in price controls which lasted for 335 days. We found that there was disruption and market distortion in the patterns of product supply and demand for chicken and eggs in the local market,” he added.
Mohamad noted that supply shortage will definitely cause a price increase. Although it had not directly affected the people, he said MAFS took quick action by allocating as much as RM1.8 billion in subsidies to ensure continuous supply of chicken and eggs in the market.
However, the provision of chicken and egg subsidies to the industry is only temporary and seen as unsustainable in the long term.
“I want to emphasise the importance of the ministry’s role in identifying short- and long-term mitigation measures to overcome food shortages when the crisis reoccurs.”
Mohamad said high dependency on imported food should be minimised to improve food security and stabilise food prices.
“Food crisis around the world shows that it is time for us to give serious attention and guarantee that every citizen has access to sufficient food at any time.”
The Impact of Natural Disasters
Mohamad acknowledged that floods that often occur during the monsoon season have had an impact on the country’s agro-food sector, which can threaten the national food supply.
He said the government has given subsidies to ease the burden of the affected farmers.
“This monsoon season is seen to have affected 8,166 farmers with an estimated area of 13,244 ha and an estimated damage value of RM48.6 million,” he said, adding that the aid distribution must be expedited so that any disruption to the coun- try’s food supply can be restored.
“We must be committed to finding the best solution through continuous engagement. We need to be more aggressive in finding long-term solutions such as climate change adaptation,” Mohamad said.
National Food Supply Status
The minister said at present, the level of food security in Malaysia is still stable with the efforts taken by the government, including the
provision of various subsidies and increase in imports to ensure food supply sufficiency.
“Based on current production and import trends, MAFS is confident that the domestic food supply is sufficient to meet domestic needs for eight main commodities namely chicken, meat, fresh milk, eggs, fish, fruit, vegetables and rice.”
Food security can be seen in terms of availability, accessibility, consumption and stability. Physical availability means that food must be readily available, while physical accessibility means the food must not only be available but people must also have access to it.
Based on the ranking in the GFSI for 2022, Malaysia is ranked eighth among Asia-Pacific countries; while among South-East Asian countries, Malaysia is ranked second after Singapore.
“Overall, steps to transform the country’s food security need to be taken seriously. We must increase funding for R&D (research and development) in agriculture, proactive engagement among academicians and the private sector, and the use of innovation and mitigation measures to deal with the threat of climate change,” Mohamad said.
He also noted that the dependence on imports has been increasing. Data showed an increase of 20.6% from January to September 2022 compared to the same period in the previous year.
“It is a constant challenge for the ministry to deal with the issue of food import dependency.”
He added that the world economic situation is expected to become more challenging in 2023 as energy crisis and food security are still among the main economic threats, especially for developing countries.
“In fact, if the world’s geopolitical turmoil and the Russia-Ukraine crisis are still ongoing, it is not impossible that the economy will enter a recession phase.
“In Malaysia, the lack of food security has caused people to worry, especially for vulnerable low-income (bottom 40% or B40) and middle-income (medium 40% or M40) groups,” he said. Mohamad acknowledged that
the effect is felt significantly in the price of staple foods such as rice, chicken and eggs.
Ensuring Food Sustainability
A research fellow at Universiti Putra Malaysia’s Institute of Agricultural and Food Policy Studies, Prof Datin Paduka Dr Fatimah Mohamed Arshad, said according to the World Food Summit, food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food.
“The major pillars of food security are availability, accessibility or affordability, and utilisation or nutrition security.
“However, when a shock occurs, we see a disruption in our food security. In this case, the shock referred to is the Covid-19 pandemic, of which the impact we are still facing.
“When the pandemic happened, we saw the implementation of lockdowns and Movement Control Order (MCO) initiatives disrupting the supply chain and causing the economic slowdown, which caused loss of income and poverty for many,” she said.
Fatimah added that those who had lost their income and jobs were subjected to health vulnerability, lower nutrition security and lower affordability to buy food, while the disrupted supply chain, on the other hand, affected the availability of food.
“All of these, when viewed in a bigger picture, brought forth food insecurity,” she explained.
Other implications to food security, she mentioned, also included consumption growing faster than production, and the need to import to meet local demands.
Fatimah also explained that economic growth contributes to food security.
“When there is economic growth, we see an increase in food production and farmers’ as well as consumers’ incomes.
“The increased food production, availability, affordability and nutrition security lead to food security, eventually increasing the quality of human capital,” she elaborated.
Ensuring food stability involves diversifying agriculture and employment, monitoring food security and vulnerability, develop- ing risk analysis and management, and reviving access to the credit systems and savings mechanisms.
Meanwhile, methods to ensure food sustainability include implementing eco-friendly farm practices, natural resource management, zero-food waste, community-based farming and community-based resource management.
“When we speak about resiliency, we look at absorptive, adaptive and transformative capacity.
“These attributes are connected to resilience-building strategies which consist of tangible measures and intangible measures,” Fatimah said.
Tangible measures include income or savings, assets or capital, and production or efficiency. Intangible measures include risk attitude or perception, self-esteem, and faith or fatalism.
“With these strategies in place, we look into the food and nutrition security indicators, such as child malnutrition, household hunger score, months of adequate food provision, household per capita fund consumption, food consumption scores and dietary diversity,” she concluded.
MAFS Outlines 5 Main Directions
In order to make the national food security agenda a success, MAFS has outlined its five main directions and focuses for this year.
Firstly, it wants to empower the aquaculture industry, which can reduce the country’s dependence on fish resources through captured fisheries.
From 2014 to 2019, aquaculture contributed between 20% and 26% of fish production compared to 80% of fish production through coastal and deep-sea fishing activities.
Accordingly, the government aims to increase fish yield from aquaculture activities to 60% to reduce pressure on the demand for natural water resources, as well as to increase income through the aquaculture industry.
Secondly, Mohamad has directed his ministry to expand cattle breeding in feedlots.
“The country’s meat import dependency rate is increasing up to 81.6%, so I suggest that MAFS redevelop the cattle breeding mega farm on a feedlot basis.
“This is to meet the needs of both local demand and export to reach the target of 50% meat self-sufficiency ratio by the year 2025,” he said.
Thirdly is the cultivation of grain corn according to the National Grain Maize Industry Blueprint, which targets the production of 600,000 metric tonnes for animal feed within the next 10 years, thus reducing dependence on imports by up to 30%.
“Malaysia imports almost 100% of grain corn or two million tonnes per year from countries like Argen- tina, Brazil and the US. I believe this measure can directly control the increase in the price of live-stock feed.
“Therefore, I sincerely hope that we can start planting grain corn this year,” he said.
The involvement of the youth is recognised as the fourth focus in enhancing the agro-food sector and smart agriculture. This is also to overcome the issue of foreign worker dependency and ageing farmers.
“The ministry needs to attract the youth by applying modern agricultural technology and strengthening agricultural R&D,” the minister said, adding that the agro-food sector provides opportunities and wide business prospects for young people to get involved in one of the country’s most important sectors.
“The youth is also identified as the main group that is open to accepting modern and smart agricultural technology in line with IR4.0,” he noted.
Mohamad proposed the empowerment of training institutes in producing high-quality graduates to create skilled agricultural workers.
“MAFS has 13 certified training centres, so efforts must be made to develop talent capable of meeting market and industry demands,” he said.
Investment in R&D has also been recognised to ensure the sustainability of food security.
- This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition