The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the gross inadequacies in our food production system and our over-dependence on imports.
IT IS almost impossible to keep up with the numbers. At the time of writing, the Covid-19 virus has infected close to two million people across the globe and killed some 120,000.
The United States now has the dubious distinction of being the new epicentre of the pandemic, with well over half a million confirmed cases and nearly 24,000 deaths. It is still seeing the fastest growing number of Covid-19 infections, followed by Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Iran and the United Kingdom.
China, which first reported the virus in its central city of Wuhan with 80,160 cases and more than 3,000 deaths before claiming that it had the outbreak under control, has reported more than 200 new infections in recent days.
But still there is a gleam of hope in the number of people who have recovered. As of yesterday, more than 400,000 Covid-19 patients were deemed to have returned to health, owing largely to the valiant efforts of medical teams risking their own lives to work relentlessly to combat the invisible scourge.
In addition to the huge number of deaths, the pandemic has flung the entire world into chaos, ruining vital industries and supply chains. The strict enforcement of keeping people confined to their homes has led to the global economy grinding almost to a halt.
There is no doubt that the final economic toll of the Covid-19 contagion will be catastrophic. Experts have warned that it could result in losses of at least US$ 1 trillion worldwide.
For us in Malaysia, today marks the 29th day of the movement control order (MCO). Based on the unsettled numbers of infections, deaths and continuing discoveries of new sub-clusters, we remain a long way from being out of the woods.
Ditto for our sickened economy.
World Bank senior economist Smita Kuriakose said last week that Covid-19’s impact on the Malaysian economy was likely to be significant, given the pandemic’s negative bearing on foreign direct investments, commodity prices and tourism industry, among others.
Although the government has quickly allocated substantial resources in response to the outbreak, she opined that Malaysia’s recovery was likely to take years because it is among the economies highly connected to global supply chains.
But let’s look at the starker reality of what the pandemic has revealed to Malaysians. One four-letter word was the first thing on the minds of the people when the MCO was announced – food.
Aside from concerns over the economy, businesses and jobs, the primary worry under the first phase of compulsory isolation from March 18 to April 1 was how to ensure adequate food supply.
Long queues, empty shelves at supermarkets, and shocking pictures of vegetables being left to rot at farms showed how our food supply chains were disordered, especially during the first week.
Over and above that, the crisis exposed the inadequacies in our food production system and our overdependence on imported food, which amounted to more that RM70bil last year.
As a friend, a successful farmer who helps Orang Asli tribes improve crop yields in several parts of the country, puts it aptly: “It’s not just face masks, but much of our food is also made in China”.
Take a vegetable that is in high demand now - the round cabbage. In August last year, the Malaysia Competition Commission (MyCC) raised the issue of approved permits (APs) for cabbage being abused, resulting in an unreasonable price hike.
The abuse was discovered during MyCC’s market review on the food sector under the Competition Act 2010, with the participation of relevant ministries, government agencies, associations and industry players.
Besides cabbage, the review also covered beef, Indian mackerel (ikan kembong) and mustard leaf (sawi).
Then Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Saifuddin Nasution Ismail described the unqualified AP holders as mere “toll collectors”.
According to my farmer friend, cabbage used to be grown in Cameron Highlands, but the farms shrivelled because “third parties with APs” imported ‘cheaper’ cabbage from Indonesia at first and then from China.
And how much do we pay to import cabbage from China? A whopping RM518mil a year. The supposedly ‘cheaper’ Beijing cabbage sells at around RM5.40 a kg, as compared RM2.49 with for the local variety.
“But the imports did not stop with cabbage. Carrots, cauliflower, broccoli and many other vegetables, which we can grow here as well, were also imported with APs, benefiting the connected middlemen, ” says my friend.
“Today, our farmers are resigned to growing short-life span leafy greens, tomatoes and a few other crops. Consumption patterns closely reflect availability. If we stop growing tomatoes, consumption will decrease because you will not see it on the market shelves.”
Perhaps, this is the right time to create a National Food Security Council and revamp the various food-related agencies under the Agriculture Ministry, many of which overlap each other in roles.
The Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority (Fama), for example, should rightfully be an ‘enabler’ agency for farmers and a cost centre identifying demand and supply, not a profit- making agency that depends on market prices determined by the Selayang wholesale market.
It has been 36 years since the 1st National Agricultural Policy was formulated, after which there were three more similar policies, the last being the National Agrofood Policy (2011-2020).
It is time to admit that these policies have not reached the people who matter – the small farmers with limited land holdings. A drastically new approach has to be found to make Malaysia self-reliant with its food supply.
The National Food Security Council should be a ‘bottom-up’ body with experts and industry players who understand the business of agriculture, not bureaucrats and certainly not politicians.
Media consultant M. Veera Pandiyan likes this view of J.R.R. Tolkien: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.