We cannot afford to neglect farmers

Malaysia has so far been fortunate that the Covid-19 crisis has not led to a severe food shortage in the country despite initial reports of panic buying after the lockdown was announced.

Many people may be out of jobs, broke and hungry, but few are starving.

However, since the risk of getting infected with Covid-19 remains until a vaccine against it is found and since no one can predict when life will return to normal again, it would be wise for the government to pay serious attention to food security.

In the past, millions in many countries have perished due to food scarcity. We hope that Covid-19 will not go down as the country’s first ever natural disaster to cause widespread hunger.

We have heard reports of migrant workers and refugees in the country not getting enough food. But these are largely localised issues and not comparable to the general lack of access to food seen in some parts of the world.

But the damage can be colossal if our war against this noxious virus escalates and we lose.

For this reason, the government cannot ignore the importance of the agriculture sector and of the country’s farmers and food producers.

Despite the odds amid the various crises they have faced, farmers have not given up. They keep on delivering their produce.

Nevertheless, if the pandemic continues for long, the country should brace for a food shortage because many food producing countries will stop exporting produce such as rice and other essentials. Vietnam has already stopped exporting rice to give priority to home consumption. Other countries may follow suit.

Malaysia imports most of its food from China, India, Thailand, Indonesia and New Zealand. The largest amount of money spent on food imports in 2018 was for cereals at RM7.1 billion, followed by coffee, cocoa, tea at RM7 billion and feedstock at RM5.9 billion

In the same year, the country also imported high amounts of vegetables (RM4.6 billion), fish and crustaceans (RM4.1 billion), fruits (RM3.9 billion), meat (RM3.9 billion), sugar (RM3.8 billion) and dairy products (RM3.8 billion).

In 2019, the biggest amount spent, RM4.5 billion, was for coffee, cocoa, tea and spices. Imports from China alone cost RM3.1 billion.

Malaysia, the 22nd largest rice consumer in the world, farms its own rice but also imports 30% to 40% per cent of its requirement. The country has about 500,000 tonnes of rice stocks and consumes 200,000 tonnes a month, according to data from the Agriculture and Food Industries Ministry.

Malaysia has only enough rice to last two and a half months following Vietnam’s decision to suspend its exports. We now have to purchase rice from other countries, such as Pakistan, India, Myanmar and Thailand, but these countries are now more concerned about their own food security.

Nevertheless, boosting agriculture products is not an overnight business. For instance, the country cannot produce rice overnight to substitute for the tons of rice imported from other countries.

Our farmers have kept toiling on despite the many challenges they face. Currently, they are producing with whatever labour is still available. They have roped in family members and non-farm workers who have become jobless by the lockdown.

Their resilience and endurance have to be appreciated. The nature of their work allows little rest or deferment and they have to survive against all odds to make ends meet. They work full time, following the dictates of nature, managing their produce and at times facing price risks.

In most cases, they will keep producing as long as their costs are covered and they can make enough money to run their homes and finance their next crop cycle.

So as not to discourage them from continuing with their efforts, the government has to help sustain the demand for their supplies and guarantee a market for farm produce.

There has to be assistance to farmers and fishermen, such as in the form of agricultural inputs to increase domestic production. Food storage and distribution have to be enhanced to ensure sufficient food supply.

The country has to realign its agro-food sector as demand for food will only increase as the population grows. In fact a billion ringgit’s worth of imported fruits and vegetables can be planted locally.

In other words, farmers and the agricultural sector need more government assistance so that food supply is not interrupted.

Perhaps the government can look into some reforms in agriculture, such as those related to marketing, management of surplus, access of farmers to institutional credit and the freeing of the agriculture sector from various restrictions. It should also find ways to revitalise the agriculture sector with modern technology.

Moaz Nair is an FMT reader.

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