Food security remains a top concern in new normal

An expert says Bernas has been able to ensure the security of a key commodity – rice – at a stable price during the pandemic.

PETALING JAYA: Academics have said that ensuring food security is more important than ever given the economic impact of Covid-19, adding that more needs to be done in preparation for future pandemics and health crises.

Delays of food exports from overseas and frantic panic buying by concerned Malaysians left supermarkets short of basic supplies such as bread and flour, which saw retailers experience unforeseen waits for restocks.

A lack of food security is particularly damaging for poorer communities that may lack access and the money to afford food when it becomes scarce.

According to Sarena Che Omar, senior research associate at the Khazanah Research Institute, ensuring staple foods are both available and cheap is essential in a time of crisis.

Sarena Che Omar.

“People who are disabled, have issues accessing supermarkets, have monetary issues or who can’t purchase a lot, they are the ones who will be marginalised by pandemics.”

She said the government must look past growing enough food for the population and prioritise other aspects of food security.

“Besides producing a bit, it’s also about economic and physical access, improving utilisation (teaching people how to prepare their food) and nutritional value,” she said.

Mad Nasir Shamsudin, a professor in Agriculture Economics at Universiti Putra Malaysia, agreed that “the food security situation of the country is becoming a more and more significant issue”, and said there needs to be an improvement in Malaysia’s approach to agriculture research.

Mad Nasir Shamsudin.

If left unchecked, he said, “food imports will continue to increase due to increases in per capita income and population, and if there is another pandemic, food prices will spike”.

He identified a number of issues plaguing the food sector that need addressing, namely underinvestment in agricultural research, small-scale farms with poor technology, a lack of entrepreneurship, climate change and depleting resources.

Nasir suggested fixes such as improving food stockpiles for emergency situations, subsidy programmes for farmers in times of crisis, and improving research in the food space to develop technology that minimises waste and improves overall yield.

Sarena identified Bernas as an example of a company that has been able to ensure the security of a key commodity, as rice remained available at a stable price during the pandemic.

She believes “the industry would collapse” if Bernas was to be removed without wide-ranging reforms being made first, as it is able to alleviate many of the problems that exist for other crops by performing specialised tasks within the industry, such as capping rice prices for consumers and buying padi from farmers at a fixed minimum price.

“In order to pay for their social obligations, they get the import rights,” she said, adding that “if you just remove them immediately, there will be nobody managing the rice industry”.

Sarena warned that pandemics are a natural cycle of life, and said the country needs to prepare early for the next one by strengthening the food supply chain and investing in research and innovation in the agriculture space.

Consumers also need to be wary of their buying habits, she said, as stockpiling “disrupts the system and makes the really needy people can’t afford food”.

“Don’t buy a lot and make it unavailable to vulnerable communities,” she said, and suggested consumers to adjust their buying habits to include more Malaysian Good Agricultural Practices (MyGAP) certified products to support sustainable farmers.