Archived: Govt urged to think hard about food security

PETALING JAYA: Budget 2013 reflects the government’s unwillingness to address the issue of food security in its totality, according to the Southeast Asia Council for Food Security and Fair Trade (Seacon) and the Federation of Malaysian Consumers Association (Fomca).

Both told FMT that the announcements in last Friday’s budget presentation showed a lack of concern over the possibility of a global food crisis.

Fomca CEO Paul Selvaraj said the budget gave too much emphasis on commercial crops and too little on “perhaps more vital areas”.

“A total of RM5.8 billion was allocated to the Ministry of Agriculture, and only about RM105 of this is for actually improving yields of food crops such as rice, vegetables and fruits. About RM432 million—about four times more—is allocated towards improving yields in the palm oil sector.”

Selvaraj said Fomca did not expect Malaysia to escape the threat of a food crisis brought on by climate change.

He noted that food shortage in Africa was worsening and that even developed countries were already facing problems. “They can’t afford to buy food, can’t produce, are facing drought and so on.”

Citing the corn shortage in the United States, which has reduced the supply of cattle feed, he said a drop in yields in developed countries would affect food supply to the rest of the world.

“Although the budget mentions an expected output from the increase in paddy acreage, there was no mention of how much it will reduce our dependency on rice imports,” he said.

He said a Fomca survey of 36,000 Malaysians in 2009 and 2010 showed that food prices were the top concern.

“For a long time now, we have been under-investing in agriculture,” said.

“In many countries, food production would expand in parallel with other industries. We shouldn’t neglect it and we don’t want to learn the hard way, when people can’t even afford to eat.”

Selvaraj criticised the budget allocations for addressing “mostly short term” concerns, saying they would only temporarily offset the financial problems of farmers, fishermen and others engaged in low-income activities.

“Subsidies for seeds and fertilisers often benefit distributors and manufacturers, not the farmers,” he said.

Making farmers competitive

Seacon executive director Anni Mitin also criticised the subsidy programmes.

“So much in subsidies is given, but these benefit only a number of companies directly.”

She added that there was a need to re-evaluate even those subsidies that would benefit farmers directly.

“When it comes to subsidies, we question how long these can last,” she said. “Why are we not making our farmers more competitive? The government should be more creative.”

She suggested that the government start encouraging farmers to acquire training, to support their work with new technologies, and to sell their produce directly to consumers.

“We don’t expect them to be great businessmen, but the market should be open and they should learn to reach consumers.”

Selvaraj welcomed the introduction of the Takaful insurance for smallholders. However, he said the terms and conditions needed to be clear and should cover loss of production or income due to natural disasters.

He also said the decision to continue the AZAM Tani project was a positive one, but added that more youths should be roped in.

He said Fomca had concerns about anti-competitive practices.

“For food to be affordable, there should be competition along the supply chain. If there is manipulation, price fixing, or collusion, then consumers don’t pay the real price. This applies to every level from importers to wholesalers, middlemen, manufacturers,” he said.

He urged the government to make full use of the Anti-Competition Act, which he described as a weapon against these practices.