PETALING JAYA: Recently, the term “food security” has become somewhat of a buzzword, prompting calls to introduce initiatives, ranging from export bans to opening up farms at military camps, to secure our domestic food needs.
What does “food security” mean to Malaysia? FMT takes a closer look at the state of Malaysia’s food security, and what needs improving.
What is food security?
Economist Barjoyai Bardai describes the term according to the definition set by the Food and Agriculture Organisation in 1974.
“Food security exists, when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and preferences for an active and healthy life,” he said.
Beyond its definition, Barjoyai said, food security could be looked at in terms of availability, accessibility, utilisation, and stability.
“Physical availability means that food must be readily available, while physical accessibility means that not only must the food be available, it must also be accessible.”
He explained that food utilisation described the manner in which food was utilised (whether efficiently or inefficiently) and that stability meant there was a consistent supply of food, adding that the perishability of food was also a large factor in terms of stability.
What is Malaysia’s food security status?
Barjoyai said that going by these four factors, Malaysia was not a food secure nation.
Despite having over 700,000 hectares of agricultural land, he said, the country could not meet its own domestic food requirements, as in the case of rice, domestic production of which met about 70% of the national requirement.
“We are 30% short. So, for example, when the Vietnamese government announced that they were freezing exports of rice, we were badly affected because we import a lot of rice from them,” he said.
Barjoyai said Malaysia’s current production of vegetables met 44% of domestic requirements, that of fruit 78%, liquid milk 63%, beef production 22%, while production of poultry meat, eggs, fish, and pork met 90% of national needs.
The figures for other produce were: chilli production 31% of requirements, round cabbage 37%, sweet potato 75%, and coconut 34%.
Universiti Malaysia Terengganu associate professor Ong Meng Chuan said there was a general lack of sustainable practices in food production.
Some plots of agricultural land had already surpassed their carrying capacity – the maximum population of an animal or plant species that can be supported by the habitat, but were still in use.
“In aquaculture, some farmers prefer to create new ponds instead of reusing leftover ponds for cultivating prawns, crab, and fish,” he said.
He said leftover ponds were unsuitable for reuse without undergoing “liming”, a process of improving water quality by applying various acid-neutralising compounds.
What needs improving?
Barjoyai said a short-term strategy to move toward achieving food security would be to reduce the export of locally produced food.
“Currently, we import over RM55 billion worth of food every year, while we export roughly RM33 billion. We could reduce exports, and use them to substitute imports.”
In the medium term, Malaysia must assess the gaps in domestic food production and establish plantations to shore up production where necessary.
In the long term, Malaysia must leverage technology and innovation to be a full-fledged food-secure nation.
“The government should reintroduce the ‘Buku Hijau’ (Green Book) initiative, but modify and improve it using technology by incorporating advances like stack-planting, hydroponics and aeroponics,” he said.
The Buku Hijau programme, introduced in 1974, was aimed at encouraging citizens to take up short-term gardening or farming.
Ong said Malaysia could consider implementing fishing seasons, with certain periods when fishing was not permitted, to allow fish populations to replenish naturally.
“Also, fishermen could change their nets to be larger in size, as larger nets would only target bigger (or marketable) fish, allowing smaller fish to grow and reproduce.”
Ong said pollution must be reduced as it had potentially devastating effects on the food chains, where some organisms may experience population loss or go extinct.