Prioritise food security, not politics and skyscrapers

The world’s population is expected to increase to 9.7 billion by 2050 – an increase of 2 billion for the next 30 years – and global food supply is expected to decline.

In addition, reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predict a 2 to 6% decline in global crop yields per decade.

This means millions of acres of land will be rendered unusable for agriculture each year due to erratic weather, droughts, floods, hurricanes, insects and other symptoms of climate change – a major challenge for the country’s agricultural sector.

However, it also can be seen as a catalyst for the transformation towards modern agriculture in supporting the aspirations of a high-income country in the future.

Agriculture is an important sector and the focus on this sector will help in strengthening and consolidating national food security, while at the same time, reduce dependence on food imports.

As we are entering the year 2020, food security should be our main and immediate focus.

As defined by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, food security covers four dimensions – availability, accessibility, utilisation and stability of food.

Food security is achieved when everyone, at all times, has access to adequate, safe, and nutritious food as well as the option that allows them to consume food for a healthy and active lifestyle.

Malaysia imported almost all kinds of raw foods from around the world, except chicken.

In the event of an extreme food crisis, food security is the one that will save the people in Malaysia, not skyscrapers, and definitely not endless political conflict based on race and religion.

According to the Minister of Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry, Salahuddin Ayub, in the event of a global food crisis, Malaysia can only last for two days, compared to China and our neighbour Thailand, which can survive with local produce for six to eight months.

As we seek solutions for this national food security, bear in mind that land is the key element in bringing this opportunity to life. And Malaysia is very fortunate to be close to the equatorial climate.

With its location in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is rarely affected by hurricanes or prolonged drought. The weather is hot and humid throughout the year, making the land in Malaysia very suitable for agriculture, although there are a few places facing floods during the monsoon season.

Government incentives for farmers to manage abandoned land should be intensified, as well as reducing land tax payment to landowners who till their lands. Indirectly, this will help to reduce the burden and cost to farmers.

The “Look East” policy of the government involving Japan and South Korea can have a positive impact on the agricultural sector.

Hydroponic Farming System for example, which is adopted extensively on a large scale by Japan to improve their food security, can be adopted here after adapting it to the Malaysian context.

This system uses what is known as vertical farming whereby the plants can have the right amount of light and nutrients as well as reduced water consumption compared to traditional agriculture.

Without the need for extensive land and ground operation, these farming techniques give a good return, are clean, pesticide-free and with the support of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR),  can reduce the burden of farmers via applying modern concepts, and this in turn could attract the youth to join agriculture.

This is in line with the Good Agricultural Practice Scheme Malaysia (SALM) introduced to ensure food quality and safety through campaigns and certification of good farming practices.

Good Agricultural Practice (APB) has established a standardisation and law or regulations to control and mitigate the risks and impact that are detrimental to agricultural production activities including food safety, being environment friendly, non-pollution and soil fertility.

Self-Sufficiency Level (SSL) is a benchmark to measure the dependence of a country on local food products instead of imported food products. The higher the SSL, the less dependence the country is on imported products.

Investing in Research and Development (R&D), especially in the field of modern agriculture is one of the steps that can be taken to create a greater variety of hybrid of ideas in this industry.

R&D can have a positive impact in the pursuit of higher SSL.

In addition, as a country which largely comprises Muslims, Malaysia has the potential to become the largest halal food hub in the Asian region.

Although the largest halal food hub is in Thailand, the Halal Certificate issued by Malaysia is a global choice.

There is nothing that can prevent Malaysia from becoming a power to be reckoned with in the agricultural sector.

In Denmark, half of the land is used for agriculture, while the Netherlands is an expert in growing and exporting tens of thousands of flowers each year, while Japan produces the best rice in the world.

Taiwan, Korea, Japan and China are often the backbone of generic food sciences like the United States.

More in-depth research and observation must be prioritised in order to enhance food security and safety in Malaysia in times of crisis.

As the saying goes, “Prevention is better than cure”, we need to start this noble effort from now on so that when a disaster or crisis hits our country, the food security and safety of 32 million Malaysians will always be taken care of.

Amir Jalal is a research associate at Emir Research, a think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.