Investing in food production

WE have been talking about food security for years now, yet we are still struggling to achieve the right balance. We have launched many plans to improve food security, but sadly, our volume of food imports remains a staggering RM20bil a year.

The Agriculture and Food Industry Ministry, despite all the national agriculture policies, has not made much headway in the food security programmes, including import substitution and productivity improvements. In rice production, for example, Mardi (Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute) has introduced many new varieties capable of producing higher yields and with improved resistance to disease. And yet the national average yield remains stuck at a low level.

Attempts to reduce the country’s dependence on beef imports, the other major item contributing to the hefty food bill, have also been saddled with problems of management.

Much has been written by researchers in academia offering ideas on how to strike the right chord to solve the issue once and for all. But there’s been no luck so far, prompting some to say we may have been pressing the wrong buttons. We may want to look at Vietnam, a country that has successfully turned from a net importer into a big exporter of rice. Like us, Vietnam also followed a plan. But unlike us, their plan was executed well.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made resolving the food security stalemate even more urgent. It is known that some rice-exporting countries did attempt to exploit the situation last year, with some reported to have demanded a higher price. If not for our healthy rice stockpile, we would have had to pay dearly for the rice import.

It would have been worse if rice-producing countries decided to completely stop their exports. Such a situation has happened before and could happen again if domestic demand in these countries soars as a result of rising population and improved purchasing power.

We need to determine the root cause behind the failure of our rice security plans to deliver all these years. We need to rethink our implementation strategy.

The other major items in our hefty food import bill are meat and dairy products. It has been said that we do not have the right conditions for beef or dairy cattle rearing, but scientists disagree, placing the blame on management failure instead.

Some entrepreneurs have tried rearing livestock overseas in Australia or New Zealand but have also met with failure. How do we explain the fact that our neighbour, Thailand, is faring much better? We know Kelantan, Perlis and Kedah get their supply of cattle from South Thailand. Can we learn from the livestock farmers in Thailand then?

One aspect of food production that we are successful at is poultry farming. But even here, we depend a lot on the import of feed materials, especially corn and soy bean. This is also a problem in the cattle-rearing industry. There have been attempts to harness our own palm kernel cake as substitute feed, but the impact has been dismal.

Food security is not just about being self-sufficient. What we should aim for is to be able to supply food which are not only affordable but also nutritious. For those that cannot grow well in the country because of climate factors, we may want to consider investing in overseas companies that supply such foods to the country. That way, we have some influence in the export of food to us in times of crisis. Without such participation, we may be at the mercy of such companies. By investing, we at least take care of the affordability part of the equation.

As for the nutritious part, we must ensure the quality as well when deciding to invest. But it is critical that the industry must be allowed to take the lead in implementing the food security plan while the government facilitates.

PROFESSOR DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM , Fellow Academy of Sciences Malaysia

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