Threats to national food security likely as El Nino returns, say experts


  • Nation
  • Thursday, 12 Oct 2023

KUALA LUMPUR: El Nino, a naturally occurring climate pattern, is back after seven years, with experts warning that it may bring extreme weather from droughts to floods and record-breaking temperatures.

Already, the current erratic weather conditions marked by heavy rain and strong winds since early this month, have taken a toll on padi fields in Tanjung Karang, Sekinchan and Sabak Bernam, Selangor, at the onset of the padi harvest season, causing angst for farmers.

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"We don’t know what will happen within the next one to two months. Before this, we were faced with a hot spell from August to September, which left us without enough water to irrigate our crops in the growing season; and now we have to brace for heavy rain and thunderstorms.

"Due to the low yields, the harvesting machinery could not extract our padi to the full as some was stuck in the ground,” farmer Fairuz Zzaini Mohd Toif, 36, told Bernama.

The current scenario saw rice millers lowering the selling price from RM1,700 a tonne to around RM1,200 and RM1,250 causing a heavy burden on farmers who are already saddled with rising costs of fertiliser, pesticides and workers’ wages.

The young farmer, who has been growing padi on his 12ha family-owned plot of land over the past 11 years, did not expect the downpours to occur daily, as the phenomenon usually starts during the North-East Monsoon, that is, at the end of the year.

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Nearly 1ha of his crops was destroyed by the phenomenon, with estimated income losses of over six metric tonnes worth RM8,000 and these did not include plantation costs.

Fairuz Zzaini and several other farmers, when met by Bernama, expressed concerns over the impact of the El Nino on weather conditions around the globe, with the phenomenon expected to increase year-end until January and February next year, causing the weather to be drier than usual.

Earlier, the Malaysian Meteorological Department (MET Malaysia) said the El Nino phenomenon is expected to become more extreme than previous episodes, with an increase in temperature and a reduction in the amount of rainfall nationwide this year due to global warming.

Extreme weather is becoming more frequent and more intense in many places around the world because of climate change. It has hit the harvest yields of several padi fields in Asia.

In July, India announced a ban on exporting non-basmati white rice to help lower rice prices and secure availability in India. The ban sent shockwaves through the global market, leading to a scramble for supplies and heightening concerns over food security.

India, one of the world’s largest producers of rice, exported more than 40% or 22 million tonnes of non-basmati white rice last year to 140 nations including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and several other countries in the African continent.

Malaysia currently produces 63% of rice for local consumption, with the balance imported from India, Thailand Vietnam.

FOOD SECURITY

However, domestic rice production risks the threats of the El Nino and the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) early next year, with the negative phase expected to reduce the total rainfall, hence causing weather conditions to be drier and this would affect states which have changed their planting season, that is in March and April, says meteorological expert at the National Antarctic Research Centre (NARC) Prof Datuk Dr Azizan Abu Samah.

In the Peninsula, the padi growing season usually takes place from September to October, while harvesting season is held from December to March. For off-season crops, planting takes place from March to April and harvesting starts from June to August.

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The situation is different in Sabah and Sarawak which practise one-season cultivation, with planting in Sarawak starting from October to November and harvesting from March to April. Sabah starts planting padi from June to August and harvesting in December to February.

"As such, when water from the dam is released for the first season (normal season), you’ve got to wait for the North-East Monsoon to refill the dam so that there is enough water for the second rice cultivation (off season) starting from March to April.

"The reservoir needs to be monitored because if less rainfall is experienced in November and December due to El Nino and IOD factors, then water stored in the reservoir is also reduced,” he said.

According to Azizan, the key issue faced by farmers during the extreme hot weather which is expected to take place early next year is to ensure water from the dam is enough to meet the needs during the planting season as water is highly in demand during the period.

If no mitigation measures are undertaken, the extreme high temperature will put pressure on padi cultivation, and hence affecting the yields.

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"The rice fields need enough water to slow down grass growth during the padi cultivation season. In our country, 60% of padi is under the irrigation system and only 20% relies on rain while another 10% is used for ‘padi huma’ or dryland padi (padi on dry areas whether on highland or lowland and depends purely on rainfall).

"In my view, the issue is not related to farmers but the management of water dams as a lot of water needs to be released. Water from dams should be released in a prudent manner so that it can be stored for use in the next season,” he said.

The issue should not be taken lightly as it is could pose threats to the national food security. At the same time, Thailand, Vietnam and Australia are also likely to experience unusually low rainfall and droughts this year due to the El Nino weather pattern.

"These countries will reduce rice exports and at the same time, others like Indonesia and India may face a shortfall in rice production and will increase their rice imports.

"Both factors could raise prices of rice and hence, causing a further strain on the global rice security issue that we are currently facing,” he said.

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Local white rice (BPT) is fast running out due to poor demand for imported rice (BPI) among consumers following the latter’s price hike of up to 36%. It is said that the domestic white rice supply shortage is attributed to low padi production in the country, which is insufficient to meet domestic demand.

The higher BPI prices are expected to shift consumer demand for BPT when sole concessionaire Padiberas Nasional Bhd (Bernas) raised the wholesale price of BPI nationwide to RM3,200 per tonne from the previous RM2,350 per tonne, effective Sept 1.

The Agriculture and Food Security Ministry has also identified panic buying of BPT among rice consumers, and in addition, several quarters have also contributed to market interference, forcing the ministry to limit the maximum purchase to 100kg for each individual transaction from Sept 7.

DRAINAGE SYSTEM

This time, the North-East Moonsoon, which is expected to start next month up to March next year, will however result in lower rainfall distribution compared to previous years, said Ambun Dindang, the senior director of the Meteorological Instrumentation And Atmospheric Science Centre at the Malaysian Meteorological Department.

Several areas such as northern Sarawak and other states in Peninsular Malaysia are expected to experience less rain for the period February to March 2024.

Sabah is the only state that will be affected by the El Nino with below average rainfall distribution.

The sudden climate change is among the reasons for the slight drop in the nation’s self sufficiency level (SSL) for rice to 63% per cent in 2022 from 65% in 2021, said Institute of Tropical Agriculture and Food Security (ITAFoS) director Prof Dr Mohd Rafii Yusop from Universiti Putra Malaysia.

ALSO READ: Ministry committed to monitoring food supplies in the country, says Fuziah

In terms of local rice needs, he said the nation can achieve an average 250,000 tonnes a month or about three million tonnes a year, and in the event of a significant shortfall in padi production due to various factors, this could trigger a crisis in this staple food.

"Many studies conducted have shown that climate change has a significant impact on padi productivity. For example, the hot weather and the El Nino can cause a water shortage in the padi fields and dams, hence affecting yields,” he explained.

Inefficient drainage and irrigation system for the rice fields should be improved as there are still padi growing areas that are ill equipped to address the irrigation problem especially during the El Nino period.

In this regard, he opined that there is a need for the Irrigation and Drainage Department to learn from developed economies as well as other Asean nations such as Vietnam and Thailand to improve the irrigation system.

Several initiatives to resolve the rice supply shortage due to the weather challenges should be carried out, such as increasing the padi growing areas as well as stimulating padi field productivity through the best practices in padi cultivation.

"To date, we only have less than 350,000ha of land for padi cultivation undertaken twice a year (about 700,000ha a year) covering 12 rice bowls and non rice bowl areas nationwide which also produce an average of four tonnes per hectare. The total is rather small when compared with Thailand (11 million hectares) and Vietnam (9 million hectares).

"Training and advisory services on the best agricultural practices are needed as there are still many farmers who do not practise sustainable cultivation, among others, lack of weed control as well as not following the planned schedule for sowing padi seedlings,” he said.

HEAT STROKE

The onslaught of El Nino also took a toll on the health of padi farmers, some of whom were hit by heat stroke, said Sungai Besar Area Farmers Organisation (PPK) deputy general manager Zulkarnain Ismail, 34.

According to him, the number of farmers in the area suffering from heat stroke has been increasing, with some hospitalised, an uncommon situation in the previous years.

"A total of 2,393 farmers are under our supervision, and this year, 220 complained of falling sick due to the hot weather and 26 were admitted to the hospital.

"When farmers fall sick, they will not be able to work on their padi fields and this would affect their yields,” he said.

Saiful Saari, 43, is among the farmers affected by hot weather. In May, he was admitted to Tanjung Karang Hospital due to heat stroke.

"I was spraying pesticides in the padi fields amid the scorching heat when I suddenly fainted. At the hospital, the doctor told me that I had to be treated for a month due to heat stroke.

"No doubt, I was used to working under the hot sun, but as a result of the extreme weather over the past two years, many of my friends were also hit by the heat stroke,” he said.

Besides the hot weather and El Nino phenomenon, farmers are also affected by the current haze situation in the country. As of Oct 8, 18 air quality monitoring stations have recorded unhealthy Air Pollution Index (API) readings of 101-200 in the Federal Territory, Selangor, Melaka, Johor and Negeri Sembilan.

"Currently, we have to wear face masks and protective goggles when going to the padi fields due to the haze. We still have to work on our padi fields in whatever conditions as this is our main source of livelihood,” said Saiful.

This situation also caused difficulties for farmers to hire workers as many are not willing to work under the scorching heat.

Another farmer, Junaidi Ahmad, 50, was forced to use his personal savings totalling RM80,000 to buy drones for spraying pesticides at his 15-acre (six hectares) padi fields in Sekinchan.

"Before this, I had three foreign workers but due to the uncertain and hot weather, getting people to work on the fields became more difficult. As such, I had to figure out the best way to continue this work and finally decided to buy drones for the purpose.

"While this is rather expensive, it saves the cost of using pesticide doses. For example, if I were to pay workers for the purpose, I need three bottles of pesticides to be used on one lot of about 1.2ha, but with drones, spraying of pesticides would cover up to two lots, making the job more effective with less wastage,” he said. - Bernama

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