Let’s have more thought for food

  • Business
  • Saturday, 19 Apr 2014

IS Malaysia serious about food security? Or for that matter, should this country be at all concerned about food security?

This is how the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) explains food security: “A situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

Going by this definition, Malaysia doesn’t have much of a food security problem. Chronic food deprivation is rare here, and this is reflected in an FAO report, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013.

The report has figures for 1990 to 2013 that indicate the prevalence of undernourishment in developing regions. The number of undernourished people in Malaysia for that period wasn’t statistically significant. The proportion of the undernourished in the country’s total population was below 5%, similar to what was reported for the developed regions.

Despite these comforting numbers, we shouldn’t forget that only a few years ago, food security was often on the minds of our policy makers. In fact, it was on the government agenda all over the world at the time.

Between 2007 and 2012, international food prices spiked three times to reach 30-year peaks, caused by slow production growth, higher demand from emerging economies, the use of agricultural products to make biofuel, and speculation. Malaysia’s Consumer Price Index for food rose from 100 in 2005 to 124.1 in 2010.

The price swings triggered a crisis that led to multilateral discussions on how nations can work together to handle the issue.

An example of the Malaysian conversation on food security can be found in the National Economic Advisory Council’s first report on the New Economic Model.

“The ‘openness’ of the Malaysian economy, in addition to increased vulnerability to external shocks, can also present lower-level, but equally damaging consequences. For example, any increase in international commodity prices, like fuel or food, could have direct immediate impact on domestic prices. These impacts cannot continue to be absorbed by government subsidies,” says the council.

The Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) talks about food security as well. Agriculture is one of the programme’s National Key Economic Areas and one of the themes for the sector’s high-impact projects is ensuring that food security objectives are consistent with the aim of increasing the country’s gross national income.

“While growing the sector, the Government will ensure that food security objectives are met. As Malaysia’s population continues to grow, the need for scaling up and increasing productivity of agro-food production, such as paddy farming, to increase national self sufficiency and reduce subsidy dependency by both farmers and end consumers,” says the ETP Roadmap.

Perhaps Malaysia’s most visible response to the global food price crisis was to come up with the National Agro-food Policy (2011-2020) to replace the National Agriculture Policy, whose third instalment ended in 2010.

Approved by the Cabinet in September 2011, the National Agro-food Policy is meant to address food security and safety so as to ensure availability, affordability dan accessibility; to ensure the competitiveness and sustainability of the agro-food industry; and to increase the income level of agro-preneurs.

In fact, food security is the first of the policy’s eight key ideas, and the first of the policy’s is to ensure the country’s food supply. As such, Malaysia’s ability to produce food for its people is a central element.

According to 2012 statistics from the Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry Ministry, the country has low self-sufficiency levels for rice (73.5%), vegetables (53.3%), fruits (60.5%), beef (30.1%), mutton (12.6%) and milk (5.2%). Net imports of food swelled from just under RM11bil in 2009 to almost RM14bil two years later.

Food security should certainly remain a high priority for the Government. There’s no reason to believe that the global food market is entering a more benign phase. For one thing, climate change has introduced yet another factor that can deeply impact food production.

The FAO says food prices today remain high, and are expected to remain volatile. The World Bank echoes this, and adds: “Managing this volatility will require sustained commitment, co-ordination, and vigilance from the international community to help governments put policies in place to help people better cope.”

That’s on the global level, but in Malaysia, ensuring food security also demands sustained commitment, co-ordination, and vigilance. We should all be watching the implementation of the National Agro-food Policy, particularly in addressing food security.

The Committee on World Food Security, an intergovernmental body that serves as a forum for review and follow up of food security policies, says it best: “Food security and nutrition is everyone’s business.”

  • Executive editor Errol Oh hopes that the push to modernise the agriculture sector won’t be weakened by half-baked projects, mismanagement and the lack of political will.
  • The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.

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