Food for the nation

  • Living
  • Monday, 10 Feb 2014

Local university UPM forges ahead in ensuring there is enough good food for everyone.

THE right to food is a basic tenet of a food security policy of any nation. The World Food Summit (1996)’s interpretation states that 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 food preferences for an active and healthy lifestyle (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, 2003).

Four components come into play, including availability of sufficient quantities of food of appropriate quality, supplied through domestic production or imports; access by households and individuals to adequate resources to acquire appropriate foods for a nutritious diet; utilisation of food through adequate diet, water, sanitation and health care; and stability in availability and accessibility.

Is food security important to Malaysia?

The importance of food security in Malaysia can be viewed from both the perspectives of supply and demand. When looking at supply, we have the agriculture sector, which can be further categorised into industrial crops and food.

In general, industrial crops – such as palm oil – have developed into a competitive and efficient subsector that contributes significantly to national development and the export industry.

However, the food subsector that consists of food crops, livestock and fisheries has not been able to perform as well.

Malaysia is self-sufficient in some of its food commodities such as poultry meat, eggs, pork and fisheries. However, she is not self-sufficient when it comes to rice, fruits, vegetables, beef, mutton and dairy milk. Thus, with the exception of poultry, eggs, pork and fisheries, Malaysia depends on imports for most of its food items, as well as machinery, which is an indication of lack of comparative advantage in this sector.

The food trade deficit has grown steadily, from RM1.1bil in 1990 to RM12bil in 2011. Like any other developing country, Malaysia has enjoyed the benefits of cheaper food imports. This dependence, however, has come at a price. The country was not forced to learn how to improve productivity and efficiency, and during the food crisis in 2008, Malaysia fumbled in securing adequate food, particularly rice, for her population.

Meanwhile, on the demand side of things, with rapid economic growth, the percapita income of the population has improved. This has caused, not only an increase in consumption of food, but also a change in consumption patterns, in terms of attributes and high-valued foods such as beef, dairy and vegetables.

UPM’s role

Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) has played a significant role as a catalyst for the development of the agricultural sector, thanks to its organisation, infrastructure and human resources; all of which contribute to the nation’s food security agenda.

Established as a school of agriculture in 1931 and as a custodian of agricultural education, UPM has been producing and training human resources necessary to develop the sector. Informal training includes executive development programmes. And as the country developed, the scope of the institution’s contribution enlarged from merely teaching, to also include research, innovation and commercialisation.

Agriculture continues to be the core business and commitment of UPM. Seven of its 16 faculties are based on agricultural disciplines, while five of the nine institutes focus on agricultural research. The non-agriculture-based faculties and institutes have also strengthened their offering of academic programmes and research activities through inter-disciplinary collaborations. In addition, UPM has an extension centre, namely University-Community Transformation Centre (UCTC) to transfer technology to farmers.

The academic programmes offered by UPM encompass the whole “farm to table” range including production, post-harvest, processing, biotechnology, veterinary, environment, economics, agribusiness, engineering and forestry.

Research carried out by the tertiary institute is also current and addresses issues such as production, processing, biotechnology, green technology, sustainable resource management, port-harvest losses, food safety and traceability. In terms of professional services, UPM has conducted training, extension and outreach programmes. All these efforts will be coordinated by the Food Security Centre, which will be established this year. It’s mission is that UPM will play a significant role in supporting the government’s food security initiatives.

With respect to urbanisation, the 21st century has often been described as “the first urban century”. Unprecedented rural–urban migration has led to rapid urban growth. Whilst in 1900 a mere 13% of the world’s population lived in urban areas, UN-Habitat estimates that by 2030, this level would rise to 60%.

In Malaysia, the urban population was reported at 65.4% in 2000 and 72.2% 2010, and is forecasted to increase to 75% in 2020. This will thus increase the pressure on urban resources. Among the most pressing needs with rapid urbanisation is the question of urban food security and ensuring the right to food. Urban populations depend on reliable and stable availability of food products, as well as affordable and convenient access to them.

Thus UPM is spearheading urban agriculture. Urban agriculture can increase food security through two main pathways – improved access to food and increased income.

Home-grown foodstuff increases the total amount of food available to a household and thus can prevent malnutrition. At the same time, the availability of fresh, home grown food products, in particular vegetables, advances the nutritional status of household members and improves health.

Secondly, urban agriculture can create an “opportunity cost” – domestic producers can either save income, via the consumption of home-produced food products that are cheaper to produce than to buy from the market, and/or increase income by selling their products. Urban agriculture activities will have great potential in addressing urban poverty and food insecurity.

Rural-urban migration has also contributed to declining rural agricultural activities due to declining farm labour. It is within this context that urban agriculture stands to play a strategic role, not only in enhancing urban food and livelihood security, but also in meeting overall national food self-sufficiency and security.

UPM is spearheading agriculture through bridging the technological gap between university laboratories, farms and the industry players to improve productivity and efficiency, as well as work towards sustainable development.

Strategies and initiatives

UPM is launching its Strategic Plan 2014–2020 in January 2015. Other than for teaching and learning, research and innovation, and industrial linkages, the strategic plan has a dedicated goal, strategic objectives and action plan on agriculture.

There are two levels of initiatives that UPM is embarking on, strengthening and refocusing.

Initiatives that need to be strengthened include academic programmes at both undergraduate and research levels. Initiatives to refocus and reemphasise are research innovation, entrepreneurship, extension, industrial links and internationalisation.

In order to be relevant, the university is also strengthening its strategic alliances with industry players. There must be a win-win situation to effectively get benefits from these links. The contribution of UPM to the industry can be in the form of research and consultancy, executive development programmes, advisory services, transfer of technology and innovation.

The contribution of the industry to UPM includes providing research funds and consultancy, attachment for academic staff, commercialisation of innovation and business partnerships, lectures and seminars, entrepreneurship development and industrial training.

To do that, UPM is establishing a National Food Security Centre to coordinate all the activities that are being conducted by the faculties, research institutes and UCTC on food security to make a more significant impact. – Story from Universiti Putra Malaysia

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Food for the nation


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