Malaysia needs to invest more in policy research

ESCALATING food prices have sparked another food security debate. Every few years, whenever there is a spike in food prices or a supply shortage, the blame game begins.

What we should do is to revisit our food security policy. Is it out of sync with current realities? Does the policy have problems with effective implementation?

In the current situation with the supply of chicken, removing import control and banning exports may be OK in the short term. But we need to also analyse the long-term implications of such measures as we strive to build a viable food industry.

It may be more pertinent for us to relook the policy we already have in place. The part we should focus on is the execution of the policy. More often than not, implementation is where most problems lie. We tend not to closely monitor. If there is close monitoring of the main items in the policy, then we can take proactive actions to correct any serious misalignment with targets.

The key parameters to monitor include supply, demand, price, domestic production including costs, import, export, and logistical parameters. All such data should be regularly analysed and communicated to stakeholders. Any discrepancies in the data should trigger appropriate remedial actions.

One expert in agriculture, a former dean of Universiti Putra Malaysia’s college of agriculture, recently asked whether we have been reading the wrong textbooks on food security. He questioned the effectiveness of our national agricultural policies, despite the many times they have been revised.

He also raised the issue of the restricted land availability for food crop cultivation. We may not be maximising land use. Or are we infected with the “cheaper to import food” syndrome?

He called for a paradigm shift in our thinking moving forward, including considering alternative farming methods to increase food production and moving away from traditional methods. Many may not realise that others are doing exactly that. The United States is exporting rice, Australia is exporting rambutan. Japan, which is roughly the same size as Malaysia but has many millions more people, is self-sufficient in rice; its farmers deploy mechanisation a lot.

He raised the question why the amounts of idle land are increasing, and what exactly is the focus of our agricultural sector? Where is our third champion industrial crop? Why don’t we integrate oil palm with livestock? That way we can take advantage of the existing marketing power of big plantations.

He further argues that if we utilise only a quarter of existing oil palm land, we can be more than sufficient in meat production. In fact, if we use only 5% of the already cultured land, we can be sufficient in some food items.

We should tap our agriculture professionals to offer simple and practical solutions like these. Most of all, we should get our execution process working. Effective execution can only work if all the stakeholders collaborate.

Policy research is more than just concocting the policy. It should involve constantly evaluating the workability of the policy. This is unfortunately lacking in Malaysia. In fact, funding for policy research is given the lowest priority in research allocations. This has to change.


Tan Sri Omar Abdul Rahman Centre for STI (Science, Technology and Innovation) Policy Studies,

UCSI University

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