Food Security in Malaysia: Rice Above All

Tackling the food security problem means tackling the problems related to our local rice production.

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Food security, as defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) covers 4 dimensions; food availability, food access, utilization and stability. Food security exists when everyone, at all times, has access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences enabling them to lead a healthy and active lifestyle.

With population increasing by the year, it’s proven a challenge to ensure food security for the general population. In 2018, Malaysia ranked 40th on the Global Food Security Index out of the 113 countries analysed. Sim Tze Tzin, Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry, noted in 2018 that Malaysia has a good food self-sufficiency level (SSL) despite reliance on food imports. SSL is a measure of how much we depend on local versus imported produce.

According to Sim, some levels of SSL include 119% for eggs, 103% for poultry, 94.7% for fish, 79% for fruits, 48.3% for vegetables, and 23.4% for beef and buffalo meat. The self-sufficiency for one of our staple crops, rice, stood at 71.6% in 2018. This is still far from the targeted SSL of 80% in 2022.

Under promise number 10 of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) manifesto, there are 14 sub-promises or goals set by the government. One of them is to re-evaluate Malaysia’s food security policy. In the first 2 years of their administration, they promised to focus on rice, aiming to develop the rice industry to be more productive and to maximise the country’s rice supply.

So far, the only sub-promise that has been fulfilled is the termination of Padiberas Nasional Bhd’s (Bernas) monopoly on rice imports. Now, the question is how will they go about fulfilling the rest of these sub-promises? The implementation of these policies must be reflective of Malaysia’s current landscape.

Challenges to food crop production

According to Prof. Dr. Abdul Shukor Juraimi, dean of Universiti Putra Malaysia’s (UPM) faculty of agriculture, many hurdles stand in the way of food crop production in Malaysia.

One hurdle is the fact that food crops require more maintenance compared to plantations such as oil palm. The lifespan of an oil palm tree ranges from 25 to 30 years, which is much longer compared to most food crops, which usually last between a few months to a few years. The pesticides and fertilisers used are mostly imported. Due to the weak ringgit, prices of these vital components are skyrocketing.   

Dr. Abdul Shukor also stated that due to the relatively stable prices of oil palm, many planters decided to plant oil palm instead, with some even selling off their agricultural land for industrialisation and housing projects.

Pests and diseases also affect the production of food crops in Malaysia. Rice plants for example have to deal with brown plant hopper (BPH, Nilaparvata lugens) and rice blast disease (Pyricularia oryzae), whilst bananas also face the threat of Moko and Fusarium wilt diseases. The estimated yield loss caused by the rice blast disease was about 90,000 tonnes per season which is valued at about RM 72 million.

According to Dr. Abdul Shukor, UPM works with many local organisations and agencies to facilitate transfer of knowledge. However, the lack of manpower hinders effective dissemination of correct practices to farmers across the nation. The majority of farmers being above the age of 40 also makes it harder for the absorption and integration of technology.

The threat of climate change also shouldn’t be ignored. One study reported that the yield of paddy would be decreased between 43% and 61% if average temperature and rainfall increased by 1°C and 1 millimeter (mm) respectively. Wastage is also one of the problems not many speak about. For example, postharvest  losses (PHL) of paddy in 2015 amounted to a revenue loss of RM 311 million.

Maximising yield

Clearly something has to be done. Tackling the food security problem means tackling the problems related to our local food crop production, especially for our staple food crop, rice.

One initiative would be to invest more in research and development (R&D) to catalyse the development of high yielding hybrid varieties. One study employing a system dynamics approach found that R&D has a high positive impact in the effort to achieve SSL in rice.

The gradual transition to bio-fertilizers should also be strongly encouraged as the use of chemical-heavy fertilisers and pesticides will induce land degradation in the long run. The microorganisms in the bio-fertilizers colonize the plant’s rhizosphere and promotes growth by supplying nutrients to the host plant.

Besides that, training and extension (an informal educational process directed towards the rural agricultural population) services should be more widely promoted to reduce productivity gaps. Extensive teaching of proper farming practices would significantly boost food crop productivity. Several courses and trainings are available under the Ministry of Agriculture such as the Agriculture Certification Programme (IPSM) and the Agro Youth Entrepreneur Incubator Programme (IUBT).

With the fourth industrial revolution upon us, the time has come for the agricultural sector to stretch its arms wide and embrace technological developments. The integration of automation and the Internet of Things (IoT) would increase productivity and negate postharvest losses due to human negligence and incompetence during the postharvest handling operations ().

Of course all of this is just an overview of a complex conundrum. More research has to be done to guarantee Malaysia’s self-sufficiency in times of crisis. But to ignore and not talk about it is not the way to go. The food security of 32 million people is at stake, and we owe it to Malaysians to ensure that such a basic human necessity will never be at risk.

Eyman Hadi is a Research Analyst at EMIR Research, a think tank focused on data-driven policy research, centered around principles of Engagement, Moderation, Innovation and Rigour.

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