From Sim Tze Tzin
In 2021, Malaysia imported a staggering RM63 billion worth of food. The recent shortage of chicken and high food prices have created greater awareness about the need for food security in Malaysia.
Politicians from across the racial, religious and ideological divides have held forth on this issue and rightly so.
At the recent United Nations General Assembly, all heads of government had turned their attention from Covid-19 to the disruption of supply chains for food and other necessities that the pandemic caused.
All of a sudden, food security has become a matter of grave concern.
Inevitably, questions concerning this issue have leapt from the periphery to the centre. Anybody who trivialises the importance of these questions cannot be taken seriously any more.
As in all such transformations, people are apt to ask fundamental questions. Is Malaysia facing a serious food security threat?
The short answer is – “not now”.
Food security is measured mainly through four criteria: availability, affordability, safety and quality, natural resources and resilience.
Malaysia is ranked number 39th in the global food security index and second in Southeast Asia. Not a bad position, given that our agriculture sector, once the mainstay of the economy, has been neglected for many years.
However, the year 2020 and beyond has altered perspectives, compelling the weighing of issues about food, its cultivation and supply into matters of grave concern.
Four major developments have caused serious concern about food security globally as well as in Malaysia.
First and foremost, the lockdowns brought by Covid-19 caused global supply chain disruptions. It has changed the supply chain forever, including the trade in food.
Secondly, the trade war and decoupling of China and the US have spilled over to food trade as well. The trade war will intensify in the foreseeable future.
The third factor complicating matters is the Russia-Ukraine war that began on Feb 24 this year. Prior to the start of hostilities, Ukraine was responsible for 30% of global wheat supply and Russia was the largest fertiliser-exporting country in the world.
The fourth and likely the most important development is climate change. Extreme heatwaves, followed by drought and unprecedented floods in countries like Pakistan have combined to reduce global food supply.
The scale and intensity of these disasters have jarred climate change deniers out of their complacency and forced them to acknowledge that climate change presents a challenge that policymakers have to factor into their calculations for the future.
In Malaysia, food security has overnight become a matter to reckon with for both government and opposition politicians alike.
How do we as a country prepare for the looming food security crisis?
I would like to propose five action items to make Malaysia more resilient in our agriculture and food industry.
Agriculture land reforms
Land is key to all agricultural advancement. If more land is allocated to farmers, more food can be produced. Peninsular Malaysia currently has eight million hectares of land for agriculture.
Around six million hectares, or 75% of the total, are allocated for oil palm plantations. Another one million hectares (or 12.5%) are for rubber plantations.
That leaves only one million hectares for all agro-food activity and this includes growing of padi and vegetables, fruit farms, ruminants, and fish and shrimp cultivation.
Limited supply of land has severely hindered agricultural advancement in Malaysia.
With limited land available, small farmers often face a multitude of problems. New entrant farmers have difficulty applying for agricultural land.
Small farmers are often given small land plots, averaging 2-3 acres (0.8ha-1.2ha). These come with short land leases, which sometimes require annual renewals.
As a result, they are unwilling to invest in technology and grow their farm business.
Ironically, big corporations have no problem applying for thousands of hectares from the government.
From Baling in Kedah to Raub in Pahang to the Lojing Highlands, big companies can obtain thousands of hectares for planting durian trees or vegetable farms. In contrast, small farmers can only dream of such a bounty.
As such, food security must be premised on agricultural land reforms.
Reforms must take the shape of land redistribution. There must be a proper plan to allocate more agricultural land for food farming.
The available land must be offered in a transparent manner to genuine farmers. The land tenure must be long enough for farmers to grow their business.
The state governments must also work hard to eradicate rent seekers who only want to lease out agricultural land, renting it to farmers. This systemic problem has burdened genuine farmers and caused food prices to go up for too long.
Agricultural land reforms must be comprehensive and should cover all states in Malaysia. We must engage with all stakeholders – the state governments and farmers. The land code and all legal matters must be attended to.
The solutions must also be comprehensive so that agricultural development becomes sustainable.
For agricultural land reforms to happen, I would like to suggest that the national land council, chaired by the prime minister, take the lead and commission a comprehensive study.
This top-down approach will ensure that all future suggestions and roadmap will be applicable to all states.
State governments must not resist change. The current land restrictions on agriculture have seriously curtailed the development of the sector. For things to change, state governments must change, too.
Part 2: Change in mindset needed to boost agricultural output
Sim Tze Tzin is Bayan Baru MP and a former deputy agriculture minister.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.