Expanding country’s rice bowl

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 30 Oct 2011

The massive floods in the Indochina rice-growing region and soaring rice prices in the global market is a cue for Malaysian farmers to improve productivity and consumers to reduce wastage of the daily staple.

FOR many of us, a diet without rice is quite unthinkable. Imagine not having rice to go with our favourite curries or dishes and doing away with the occasional treat of nasi lemak, nasi kandar or chicken rice.

Rice is a staple for half the world, including Malaysia where we consume between 2.2 million and 2.3 million tonnes annually.

The country, which produces about 70% of local consumption, also relies on imports from our neighbours such as Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, all of which have been hit by tropical storms and floods in recent weeks.

In Thailand, which is experiencing its worst floods in half a century, almost 14% or 1.4 million hectares of its padi fields have reportedly been wiped out. With almost 7.5 million tonnes of crops destroyed, the price of Thai rice is expected to skyrocket to US$750 (RM2,298) per tonne by December.

But even before the floods, Thailand’s export price for rice had jumped 12% to US$622 (RM1,905) a tonne early this month following a decision by the Thai Cabinet to pay their farmers a higher price for unmilled rice through a rice mortgage scheme.

Deputy Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister Datuk Mohd Johari Baharum has assured that Malaysia will not face any shortage of rice in the immediate future despite massive flooding in the rice bowls of the Indochina region.

The country now has a stockpile of one million tonnes of rice, 70% of which is sourced locally.

Padiberas Nasional Bhd (Bernas) has also recently secured a guarantee from the Vietnamese authorities to supply 800,000 tonnes of rice to Malaysia which is enough to cover rice stockpiles for more than four months.

With global rice supply falling and prices soaring, experts and consumer groups here say there is a need for local farmers to increase production and the people to cut down on wastage.

Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations (Fomca) chief executive officer Datuk Paul Selvaraj stresses on the importance of insulating the domestic market from high market prices with a federal policy that emphasises food security.

“So much has already been pumped into cash crops like palm oil, it’s time to focus on becoming self-sufficient in our rice production,” he says.

At the height of the world food crisis in June 2008, rice-exporting countries like Thailand, Vietnam and India either banned or limited their rice exports.

“We have learnt an invaluable lesson from 2008. We are vulnerable because we are dependent on external markets. Malaysia, or any other nation dependent on rice imports, has no say if the Thai government’s decision to offer higher prices for rice bought from its farmers results in global rice prices skyrocketing,” Selvaraj points out.

“The only thing we can do is to come up with a policy response such as boosting investments into producing more food crops.”

Retired agriculture department rice agronomist Phang Futt Khaw agrees.

Phang, who was a former Bernas senior manager, believes the country not only has the ability to be self-sustaining, but can even transform herself into a rice-exporting nation if farmers are more efficient.

“For decades, an unofficial pajak (lease) system has been adopted by landowners and farmers. The Government should now set up an official network and promote the lease system especially among unproductive and inefficient land owners.

“Encourage them to lease out their plots for a minimum of five years so that other more productive farmers can invest in the land and yield a greater harvest – it’s a win-win situation for everyone,” he opines.

Padi expert and rice consultant Ho Nai Kin admits that suitable land for new padi cultivation is scarce except for some small pockets in Pahang and Sabah.

He notes that after the successful implementation of the Muda Irrigation Scheme – then the country’s largest agricultural project – the coastal plains of Kedah and Perlis began to produce rice twice a year.

The project supplied water to over 96,000ha of padi fields in 1973 and today, more than 50% of the peninsula’s rice production is from the Muda area.

“Suitable land in the peninsula is almost exhausted but there are pockets of marginally suitable plots in Rompin and Pekan, Pahang, for instance. Sarawak’s large stretch of swampy coastal areas are not suitable for rice cultivation and in Sabah, the lack of infrastructure limits access to the suitable cultivation areas,” says Ho.

Although expanding new planting areas may be difficult, Ho believes that Malaysia has not reached her full rice production capacity.

He says productivity can definitely be increased.

“Farmers must increase cropping intensity and yield per unit area while reducing post-harvest losses. Pests, diseases, lodging and poor crop handling cause substantial yield losses,” Ho notes.

Both he and Phang strongly argue for the replacement of input subsidies (where farmers receive items like fertilisers) with price incentives so that they earn more for the crop.

“I don’t believe in subsidies. When the farmers earn more, they will be more productive and hardworking,” Phang reasons.

However, becoming self-sufficient is not enough, Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (Asli) chief executive and director Datuk Dr Michael Yeoh observes.

“Learn to cultivate our own food and consider other types of basic food to reduce over-reliance of rice in our diets,” he says.

Wastage too is a problem.

Too much rice is wasted, both by consumers and farmers – the latter during the post-harvesting stage.

Selvaraj points out: “Unlike our Finnish friends who from young, are taught to never waste food, Malaysians tend to take more than they can eat – just look at how we pile on the food at buffets and never finish it.”

Ho, formerly a senior agronomist with Mada, concurs.

“If you look around at eateries, you’ll find that most people usually only finish two-thirds of their rice. That’s a lot that gets thrown away.”

Selvaraj says food shortage, as a whole, is a major issue.

“It’s not just rice. Many countries are contending with food shortage issues with increasing global demand coupled with a fall in supply due to factors like climate change and limited agricultural land.

“Technology has proven ineffective in solving the food shortage problem. It’s time to review policies,” he recommends.

Realising the need for the country to be more self-reliant in food supply, the Government through Budget 2012, is set on boosting production, ensuring price chain stability and keeping costs reasonable.

The National Agro-Food Policy 2011-2020’s four-pronged approach to ensure adequate food supply, increase the value-add of the agro-food sector, complement and strengthen the supply chain and provide trained labour for the agriculture sector will be introduced.

Some RM1.1bil has been allocated next year for the development of the agriculture sector while the scope of the commercial agriculture fund will be expanded to increase the number and income of agropreneurs. The Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority has been tasked with ensuring sufficient food supply via the extension of contract farming programmes.

Come 2015, Mother Earth will have some nine billion children to call her own – that, according to published estimates, will require about 2,400 kilocalories per head.

This in lay term means that agricultural production needs to be doubled or even tripled in the next 40 years.

Nearly all of this population increase will occur in developing countries like Malaysia which already has 28.5 million mouths to feed, so we seriously need to not only plan, but actively implement policies that can effectively prevent food shortage in the country.

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