HAVE food, have power – it is clear when he starts talking about the subject that it is a topic close to the heart of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek.
Without a doubt, “food sovereignty” is not just a buzzword for the 57-year-old politician who has been overseeing the country’s agricultural affairs for over a year now. Even after a long, hot, afternoon ploughing through the new maize (corn) farm in Kampung Dadong, near Kemaman, Terengganu, Ahmad Shabery is indefatigable as he shares his aspiration to make the country self-sustainable in its agro-food production, and more. Food sovereignty, or the rights of a nation to produce its own food and not depend on imported food supplies to feed its population, is an important policy for Malaysia to adopt, he stresses.
“Our country is currently importing more food than it is producing and exporting, which puts us at the mercy of foreign countries,” he says, referring to Malaysia’s food import bill last year, which was reported at RM45.39bil. Our food export amounted to only RM27bil, leaving us with a deficit of over RM18bil.
It is a heavy economic burden, and that is why the Government has been aiming at self-sufficiency for some time, he adds. Once we achieve self-sustainability in our food production, it could eventually lead to food sovereignty.
Integral to the ministry’s food sovereignty plans is the Kampung Dadong grain corn farm – a pilot project to grow Malaysia’s own feed grain.
“Our animal feed bill amounts to RM5.6bil a year on average.
“Corn is the most crucial raw ingredient in the feed for our chicken, cattle, goat and fish, but we import nearly 100% of it for our use at a cost of RM3.1bil a year,” says Ahmad Shabery.
By farming our own corn, he adds, we can cut our food import bill while creating a new agro-based industry ecosystem that can open up opportunities through its value chain from seed production to harvesting and processing, logistics and marketing.
“Do you know, grain corn (which, unlike our regular sweet corn, is not suitable for eating) has some 260 industrial uses including pharmaceutical?” he muses, before stressing, “Our priority now, of course, is to produce enough of the grain we need to feed our livestock.”
Top of that livestock list are our chickens, which he describes as one of our cheapest sources of protein.
As he puts it, grain corn farming could be a long-term solution for stabilising the supply and prices of local chicken.
“Currently, Malaysia’s chicken production is at 110% of self sufficiency level (SSL) but this cannot be fully guaranteed because the country still relies on imported feed for the local chicken,” he says, highlighting a recent case when Argentina’s corn supply, which accounts for 90% of the corn supply to Malaysia, was affected when floods hit the country.
Imagine if there is a war or other geopolitical disasters, says Ahmad Shabery, we will suffer, especially if we rely on imports of food production inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, animal feed, machinery and equipment.
> Why didn’t we go into grain corn farming before?
We don’t have a grain policy or grain board or grain projection. We have been relying almost 100% on imports, which depends on international pricing.
We don’t have this policy because all this while, the belief is that it is cheaper to import.
The irony is that our neighbouring countries – Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia and even Vietnam – have their own policy and are looking at growing corn as their second food crop after rice.
Our weather is also said to be unsuitable, but why is it possible for our neighbours to grow corn? We have the same weather and the same conditions, more or less.
In the Philippines, for example, corn for feed is widely grown in (the southern state of) Mindanao. If it can grow in Mindanao, why not in Sabah?
We are currently importing up to four million tonnes of corn grain worth about RM3.1bil a year.
It is causing a high outflow of our currency to foreign markets; the trade deficit for Malaysia’s agro-food was RM18.1bil in 2015 and feed grain is one of the biggest contributors to the deficit with an import cost of RM5.6bil, out of which RM3.1bil is from feed corn alone. We hope to reduce the country’s dependency on imported corn grain by at least 50% in the next few years.
> What is the ministry’s target for rolling out the grain corn-farming project?
We are currently drawing up a corn grain policy and plan with some experts from the local universities.
As for the time frame, we don’t only need to prove that we can grow grain corn here, we also need to make sure that the corn is of high quality as feed for our livestock. For instance, we want chicken fed with the corn grain to grow to 2kg in 45 days. So we need time.
This pilot project will take about 100 days for its first yield (expected this September) and let’s say, with further testing, it will take about a year. I think by the second year, we can expand it on a national scale. We have already earmarked paddy fields outside of the country’s rice bowl area (kawasan jelapang padi) which is estimated to be about 164,000ha wide. It will be easier to start in these areas because the land is flat and has an existing irrigation system, and you don’t need to clear it.
Like in Kampung Dadong, we want to plant the grain corn as an alternate crop in their paddy fields. The farmers in Kampung Dadong usually plant paddy from February to June, and after harvest, they leave their land unused until the next year. Under the pilot project, they are planting grain corn there from June to October. This crop rotation can increase their earnings by RM1,000 per hectare.
This pilot project in Kampung Dadong is about 38ha wide. We need about 400,000ha. The Government also plans to use unused land in the country, estimated to be about 120,000ha.
(One good thing) is that we don’t need a lot of investment to grow corn. If we focus on increasing the production of rice in areas outside of our rice bowl area, we will need to put in a lot of investment in building dams, developing better irrigation systems, etcetera. With grain corn in these paddy fields, we don’t need all that and it will help stem the outflow of our currency in the future and save our currency with regards to our import bill.
This initiative is part of our food security policy. So far, we have only focused on the security of our carbohydrate supply or rice. We have not focussed on the security of our protein supply. The cheapest supply of protein in the country is chicken. We currently produce enough chicken for the country’s needs; in fact, the production is at 110%, allowing us to even export some.
But what many don’t realise is that the chicken feed is 100% imported. Imagine if Argentina or Brazil suddenly stop exporting chicken feed, our chicken will not have food.
Now some are asking why the price of chicken has gone up even though our supply of chicken is meeting our needs – it’s not a question of simple supply and demand. The price hike is due to the hike in import prices, fall of our currency, delay in the delivery, and others. We need to look at it from an agro-economics perspective.
> You also mentioned food sovereignty. What is the difference between food sovereignty and food security?
Food sovereignty is one step higher than food security.
Take Singapore as example, it might have food security because its food supply is adequate due to trade agreements with food producing countries ... But in the case of war, trade sanctions and geopolitical instability affecting global prices or preventing the delivery, then their food security will be affected.
In these cases, the measure of strength of a country is not how much weaponry it has but how much food we have and our ability to produce our own food. That is our food sovereignty. That is why I believe that if we don’t have a policy in relation to our livestock and grain, even though we are currently producing enough food for the country’s needs – around 80% – we will be exposed to elements that can threaten our political stability. People who have not eaten for five days will go on a rampage. We don’t need outside forces to attack us.
That is the benchmark. Previously, there were countries that relied on imports for food like Venezuela, but look at what’s happening there now. When the oil prices were high, they had enough income so they did not think it was necessary to grow their own food, but the minute their oil price fell, so did their currency. Now they are facing 1000% inflation, Venezuela is now constantly on the brink of unrest. We are quite lucky to have enough rice, but still it is not enough.
> What if our farmers decide to stop planting food crops like rice and go into cash crops like grain corn?
That’s why we have a lot of incentives and subsidies for rice farmers to reduce their farming costs and help them earn more income, because we understand that other crops might be more profitable – farmers in Kedah have complained that they are forced to grow rice when others are allowed to plant palm oil which is more profitable, for example.
But with grain corn, rice farmers can plant it as a second crop, after they harvest their rice, to enhance their soil and increase their income. Crop rotation is good for the soil.
Anyway, they can’t focus only on the corn because in Terengganu at least, we have the wet season which is not suitable for corn. During the monsoon, they will need to plant paddy. Many usually just wait more than six months after they harvest their rice for the next cycle.
> Does the ministry have a module for the farmers?
We are in partnership with Green World Genetics Sdn Bhd (GWG) where the company is “training” the farmers to plant corn in their paddy fields and supplying the seeds. GWG is a leading company in the development of the country’s seed industry under the National Key Economic Areas (NKEA).
The profits are divided 70:30 between the farmers and GWG. The company also offers a buy-back guarantee of the corn grain produced by the farmers in the pilot project.
> What other agricultural sectors or products is the ministry looking at for the country’s food sovereignty?
We are also looking at dairy farming and livestock (for meat).
We are already self-sufficient in some foods, such as rice, where we produce about 70% of the population’s needs.
It is the same with chicken and fish, but where meat and milk are concerned, we can only afford to produce 20% of the population’s needs so far.
Again, animal feed is an issue. For dairy farming, for instance, we need hectares of grass fields for their food while the infrastructure for processing the milk is complex. That means we need to streamline the farms, we cannot do it in patches. We need an economy of scale for efficiency in logistics and supply chain including the processing and transportation. If we don’t address that, it will push the price of the products up.
It is crucial for dairy farming because we need to keep the products, like milk, fresh.
> To expand our agricultural activities and increase our agro-food production so that we can attain food sovereignty, we need to encourage more young people to go into the field. How can we do that?
We have to prove that agriculture can guarantee a good life.
True, some people say they are going into agriculture because of their love of farming or nature, and they say they don’t care about the money. In the long run, however, it will not be sustainable.
We need to break the old myth that farmers are poor, that there is no money in farming, and they need aid. The minute you can prove that one can have economic stability and prosperity through agriculture, you can draw young people into the field.
We also need to build up “Agriculture icons” and develop “cool farmers” who are modern, adept at technology et cetera.
I think more and more people are losing interest in or getting fed up of office work. They don’t want to dress formally or wear suits and be tied to their desks every day. I think many young people now aspire to work out in the open and be close to nature and dress casually in jeans and t-shirt. We need to build these images and types of personalities to change the old perception on agriculture.
> We already have a National Agro-Food Policy 2010-2020, so how does this and food sovereignty factor into it?
Livestock is not mentioned in our National Agro-Food Policy for some reason. I’m not sure why.
And while we have highlighted food security in that policy, it is not enough. We have to do more. Food sovereignty means you are more than secure, you are supreme - you have power and strength as a food producer and can penetrate other markets in the world.
In some agricultural countries like Denmark, for example, they don’t talk about producing 100% or 200% of their food needs, they are actually looking at producing 700% of their needs, so that they can conquer the world markets with their food products. It’s the same in countries like Norway and Switzerland, among others. They are small countries but they are producing more food that they need because they are looking at food as a tool for supremacy and diplomacy.
Even in the US, the second prominent state building in Washington is the Department of Agriculture, underlining the importance of the agro-food sector. In the US’ DoA, for example, they have about 1000 economists and other experts who understand climate change, genes, seeds – all looking at how to develop policies that will make their country stronger.
We can say that we are secure now, but if there is war, we might lose our sovereignty.
> Can we have food sovereignty with the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) and Asean Economic Community?
We have no choice, even without them, we will have other trade agreements and partnerships that we have to open up to.
TPPA will force us to be more competitive. For instance, countries with the lowest costs of poultry farming are the US and Brazil because they grow their own feed and have a lot of mechanisation. The prices of their chicken is therefore low. So under TPPA, it will be difficult for us to stop them from entering our market.
But that doesn’t mean we should just accept it. We have to improve our own capabilities to compete with them. We also need to look at it as an opportunity to bargain and market our own products – we have other agro-products that are cheaper than theirs.
> Climate experts forecast that we will experience La Nina later in the year. Are our farmers prepared?
We cannot stop our agricultural activities because of the weather. In fact, the weather is part of the risk in agriculture. We need to mitigate it.
We are also looking at crop insurance to protect farmers from risks linked to climate change such as drought, diseases and floods.
In its first phase, the crop insurance will cover only padi. Later, it will include other agriculture activities such as livestock, agrofood commodities such as fruits and vegetables as well as the fisheries sector. The insurance will make the agriculture sector more attractive to investors, while giving farmers a peace of mind.
> What about climate change? What are the ministry’s plans in facing climate change?
Again, we cannot stop the extreme weather, but there are cycles – like El Nino and La Nina – so we are looking at how we can deal with each cycle to mitigate the impact on our food crops, livestock and fish. The National Agro-Food policy has also taken into account the effects of climate change.
We also need our researches and experts to come up with new solutions to the challenges that we will face in agriculture due to climate change as well as look at ways to improve our food production.
For instance, they can look at how we can develop new variety of seeds and plants that can make our crops more able to weather the changes in our climate.
We are lucky, though, that our weather is not as extreme as other countries – we don’t get hurricanes or cyclones as the ones in China or Taiwan.
- Part Two: Sunday Star talks to farmers about corn farming.