Sabah food security: Failing to prepare is preparing to fail

  • Letters
  • Wednesday, 08 Apr 2020

THE greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reached it. - Michelangelo.

To remain content and be idle is also a danger, and we note this same contentment from Sabah’s Agriculture and Food Industry Minister Datuk Junz Wong recently when he downplayed issues with food supplies, particularly rice.

Yes, Padiberas Nasional Bhd (Bernas) has assured Sabah it has a four-month stockpile. But what is beyond this four-month horizon?

The Covid-19 pandemic has upended business with the Malaysian Institute for Economic Research forecasting 2.4 million job losses this year.

And topping that with widespread "hoarding" by consumers and enhanced stockpiling by countries to ride out this pandemic, it has driven up grain prices and pushed the food security agenda. It also created market pandemonium for the most basic of essential items, food, among many, including Sabahans.

Sabah is highly reliant on food imports, especially rice, where imports in 2017 made up 74% of its total supply, while vegetable imports made up 47%, according to data from the Sabah Agricultural Blueprint 2018.

The pandemic has unfortunately thrown a spanner into the import economy with several Asean nations mulling a ban on rice exports.

On March 25, the world’s third-largest rice exporter, Vietnam, did just that.

That set tongues waggling among Sabahans, asking whether food security could morph into a major crisis in the months ahead. Although blessed with abundant fertile arable land, much remains unused.

In 2017, out of 322,600 hectares suitable for padi cultivation, only about 10% or 31,274 hectares were farmed.

This is especially worrying for a state that in 2016 had a median household income of RM4,110, below the RM5,228 national average and a Gini coefficient of 0.402 compared to the national 0.399

A higher Gini coefficient indicates more inequality. It is therefore heart-breaking that while many Sabahans earn un-liveable wages, they endure higher prices through added logistics costs and levies slapped on imported foodstuff.

There are many underlying economic reasons for Sabah’s over-reliance on rice imports.

Firstly, the state’s poor infrastructure renders the logistics of processing, storage and distribution extremely inefficient, with long logistics delays contributing to loss of quality and attrition from weather and pests, before it reaches the market.

Secondly, underdevelopment of mechanisation adds labour intensiveness into the agricultural output.

The Sabah rice farmer produces an average yield of 3.39 tonnes per hectare, far below Vietnam’s 5.4 tonnes per hectare.

Thirdly, the open market economy allowed consumers to buy cheaper imported rice.

As Albert Einstein once said, in the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.

Sabah should seize this moment to restrategise making our homeland as a rice bowl for the country.

We must reactivate the thousands of hectares of idle padi land while diversifying to food crops outside of commodities such as oil palm.

Sabah can be a food basket and producer of high end and exotic food and fruits with increase in yields, productivity and diversity by experimenting with introduction of short and longer term crops.

We must embrace smart partnerships and sharing of technologies and innovations in new farming techniques to productively farm our vast area of coastal lands.

The government must set the right agriculture policy tone to get produce from farm to the table, encompassing production, storage, logistics, quality control, marketing, branding and product development.

It should kill two birds with one stone and promote bustling farmers' markets in cities and towns, like the famed Dutch Flower Market in Amsterdam and Japan’s Tsukiji fish market, to serve as tourist destinations.

In agriculture, Sabah offers great promise and exciting potential but lacks in political will to seize the moment.

We stand reminded by this famous quote,"Be not afraid of growing slowly, be only afraid of standing still".

Dr Pamela Yong is the deputy chairman of the Institute of Strategic Analysis and Policy Research

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