Time to relook food security

FOOD security has always been my favourite topic. I have been arguing for the need of a holistic policy to ensure our food production is secured and self-sufficient. I have written a few pieces on food quality, safety and standards before.

Food-related agriculture is often given the last priority. We can’t live on oil palm and rubber, however advanced the technology associated with those crops is.

Our survival, and the survival of humankind, is about ensuring the availability of food.

We Malaysians take food for granted. There is so much food on our table that we have perfected the art of wasting it.

Every day, we generate 15,000 tonnes of food waste, enough to fill 7.5 football fields or to feed 7.5 million humans. Yet there are 800 million people or 26 times the population of Malaysia who go hungry each day on Planet Earth. That is one in five humans.

Food as argued by Tom Standage in his book, An Edible History of Humanity, is the catalyst for human change, political groupings, geopolitical competitiveness, development of industries and economic superiority.

In short, food transforms humanity.

But are we aware that modernisation is as much about industrialisation as it is about improvement in food production?

Food is politicised, even weaponised, and not to mention being used as a bargaining power.

Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winner in 1998 for Economics, famously stated the correlation between famine, democracy and the free press. (Yes, the latter matters!)

Now for the wake-up call: Prices of food are on the rise in this country. The worrying thing is, while the rate of inflation was at 2.2% in March, food inflation was at 4%.

Many welcomed the move by the government to remove approved permits (APs) for food imports.

“Anyone can import food,” said the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob.

While it is a laudable move, it is more of a knee-jerk reaction rather than a proper, well-thought of, comprehensive and holistic policy. APs for food imports have always been a contentious issue. It benefited a few at the expense of many.

The government’s idea to remove the APs is to ensure local supply of food is sufficient. It will certainly prevent the manipulation of food prices and supply.

We should consider any form of APs and monopolies on any food item as unacceptable. This is an opportunity for the government to seriously consider the abolition of monopolies on essential foodstuffs. In the spirit of true market economy, monopolistic practices are backward and irresponsible.

Grain is fast becoming the white gold of the 21st century. The last we heard, the world’s stock of grain has fallen to 45 days of consumption.

In the case of Malaysia, at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Minister of Agriculture and Food Industries reassured us that reports of the country’s rice stock could only last for two-and-a-half months were incorrect.

The minister told us that our current local rice stock at the factory, wholesale and retail levels stood at 523,000 metric tonnes. These figures I am sure have changed dramatically now.

Many rice-exporting countries are considering a total ban on exports. They know the importance of rice to the populace. Rice after all is the staple food of billions of Asians. Hunger begets anger.

It is time to be more prudent with our idea of development. We are so enamoured with all things massive and mega that we almost forgot that people need to eat. We are still groping in the dark as far as our food-based agriculture policy is concerned. The wisdom at one time was, it is more economical to turn a hectare of land into an industrial lot than to cultivate plants for food. The agricultural sector pertaining to food has never really being rejuvenated. The real farmers on the ground are left without research and development support.

Back then, there was the idea of Fund-for-Food (3Fs), but like all initiatives, it was short-lived. Financing in food-related agriculture is most difficult. Very few dare to venture into food production for obvious reasons. Those who got the financing were the ones who were politically connected, but with little to no knowledge of the industry.

We have to accept the fact that there will be a scarcity of rice and other essential foodstuff in the future. It is already happening. And it has nothing to do with the Ukraine war.

Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. And a diehard rugby fan. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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Johan Jaaffar , The Bowerbird writes ,


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