IR4.0 for national food security

NATIONAL food security is a key pillar in the overall strategy of national development due to its reciprocal relationships with other socio-economic fields. An effective national food security strategy will create availability and affordability, therefore help reduce household expenses. On the government side, most of the country's allocations can be channelled to other deserving sectors.

One of the unique features of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR4.0) is the achievable efficiency, and the agricultural industry is among the sectors that will benefit greatly from IR4.0. Through the power of IR4.0, the agricultural industry will manage and provide food security assurance to people in a more organised manner while reducing the pressure on various resources.

Technology is now commonplace in the agricultural sector and has evolved rapidly due to IR4.0. This has caused difficulties in adaptation, especially among farmers accustomed to traditional farming methods including having extensive farms and utilising high levels of labour.

IR4.0 is regarded as essential for food safety. Therefore, it is not surprising that leading countries in the field such as Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, Singapore and South Korea have long increased their technological capabilities to serve their people.

A more detailed analysis of leading countries shows they have focused on improving agricultural and food technology. They prioritise high-tech agriculture, engineering capabilities and economic principles, establishing them as the pillars of the national food security strategy in their respective countries.

Among the trends is making food security a top priority of the administration, large investments in agricultural technology research and development as well as a special focus on small farmers and local agricultural technology entrepreneurs through innovative funding, incentive schemes and extensive e-commerce networking.

In this regard, having a clear national food safety strategy is one of the most important requirements for all other food safety elements to be properly integrated.

Recognising that food security is a national issue requiring breadth and depth in solutions instead of just a simple introduction of new regulations, the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) has a proven concept in the agricultural sector.

MDEC's pilot deployment of IR4.0 agritech was highly successful in various agricultural activities such as smart fertigation, smart misting, smart aquaculture, smart poultry, smart irrigation and smart soil monitoring. It has been observed that agritech helped increased the productivity, quality and income of small farmers by over 20%. Numerous farmers enjoy higher incomes and have successfully brought their produce to market.

Prioritising the agenda results in a "whole-of-government strategy" where there is a concerted effort across all agencies and ministries. There is no unhealthy competition – all actors and players in the food security ecosystem can work together. Such concerted effort will result in effective policy implementation, creating an entire ecosystem of support including various players such as producers, academia and industry R&D, policymakers and even consumers.

History has demonstrated how other countries look at the current situation and how they have taken important steps to ensure their national food security while Malaysia has achieved a zero score in food safety indicators and policies under the Global Food Safety Index (GFSI) 2020. Therefore, it is time to have a holistic approach and strategy by the government to make food security a top priority.

Results from MDEC's digital agritech pilot projects have showcased the viability of digital technologies and automation in agriculture. However, there is room for even more technological improvement. We can go beyond Industry 4.0's version of agri-tech, and into "agtech 5.0" which is also envisioned under Malaysia 5.0, inspired by Japan's Society 5.0.

Malaysia 5.0's vision is to create a society that is highly integrated with technology, as well as to be governed by inclusive and equitable environmental principles and practices.

In the near future, innovative fintech and trading platforms such as blockchain-based peer-to-peer (p2p) marketplace platforms may be considered to support small farmers by minimising the role of middlemen (if not cut out entirely) and ensure best values for the consumers and better margins for the farmers.

Similar technologies should be applied to other crops in Malaysia, rice in particular. Despite being a major rice consumer, Malaysia only produces 70% of the total domestic demand and importing the rest. In fact, self-sufficiency levels have dropped slightly from 70% in 2018 to 69% in 2019. A global crisis such as Covid-19 pandemic has shown Malaysia's vulnerability in food security when trade activities are halted, depriving Malaysia of its staple food.

Thus, in addition to transcending the current notion of food security (achieved via imports supplementation) to actual self-sufficiency (at least for staple foods, major livestock and aquaculture), there is existing and sizeable captive market with an upward trend to be capitalised on and technological advancement is the only way forward towards food safety, security and sovereignty. The time to act on this is now.

Datuk Dr Rais Husin Mohammed Ariff, MDEC chairman

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