Food security has recently become the most highlighted issue for all countries, including Malaysia, as other nations have imposed food protectionism. For instance, India’s rice export ban, which contributes to 40 percent of the rice export, has reduced the world rice supply, impacting the rice-importing countries significantly due to a surge in global rice prices (Jacob, 2022). Despite Malaysians being proud of their multicultural variety of food, many are unaware that the ingredients used to prepare them are primarily imported. In 2021, the Department of Statistics Malaysia (2022b) revealed that only 24 out of 50 selected agricultural goods have a self-sufficiency ratio, a food security measure, of less than 100 percent. These goods are vital to Malaysians since they make up our daily food consumption, such as beef (18.9%) and rice (65.0%).
Source: Department of Statistics Malaysia (2022b)
Food security should be a top national priority, as Malaysia is heading to become a developed nation. Based on a survey conducted in 2021 by the World Bank (2022), 17 percent of low-income families were vulnerable to food insecurity as food inflation has put pressure on their disposable income. As Malaysia is an open economy, its food price is sensitive to external factors, such as climate change and geopolitics. For example, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has indirectly raised the price of local produce because the hike in natural gas prices impacts the growing cost of imported fertilisers, which Malaysia relies on for its agriculture industry (Azman, 2022).
As the Malaysian ringgit is susceptible to exchange rate fluctuations, food prices have been soaring significantly due to the ringgit’s recent depreciation to a 24-year low against the US dollar (Wong, 2022). In August 2022, the Department of Statistics Malaysia (2022a) stated that food inflation has risen by 7.2 percent year-on-year. The high rate was brought on by Malaysia’s position as a net food importer, as it spent RM63 billion on food imports in 2021 (Singh, 2022). Hence, the consumers have no choice but to constrain their consumption and fork out more money for groceries since local substitutes are unavailable.
Source: Department of Statistics Malaysia (2022a)
Furthermore, accessible and ecological foods grown in the nation will benefit everyone. Families with limited food options are more susceptible to eating disorders due to inadequate nutritional intake, leading to health deterioration (Bleich et al., 2015). More local crops are required to fill the food gap and reduce the exposure Malaysians have to toxic pesticides, which is common in imported produce. Besides, its short food miles contribute to a low carbon footprint with negligible external shock (TRVST, 2021). By entrusting more modern farmers with feeding the population and motivating youths to become agropreneurs, local food will have a chance to flourish. Given the East Coast’s abundance of fresh goods, local cities can enjoy them with modern infrastructures. Japan has illustrated this by using its shinkansen to deliver fresh oysters from Miyagi prefecture to Tokyo, potentially boosting the rural economy (NHK World News, 2020). Eventually, the agriculture industry can experience more resilient growth.
However, the government struggled greatly to improve the nation’s food security. According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industries (MAFI) (2021), farmers confront an unfavourable economic climate as the knowledge gap, limited financial assistance, and private investment prevent them from shifting to modern agriculture practices. As a result, low automation utilisation, unsustainable farming techniques, and high input costs have resulted in low production efficiency, raising production costs and lowering income. The short land lease period of 3 years and high logistic costs have deterred potential farmers without economies of scale from venturing into the industry.
Despite the growing population, the labour shortage caused by minimal youth participation has significantly impacted crop yield. Due to the youth’s negative perception of the sector, local youth represents 15 percent of all farmers in Malaysia (Mohd Reda, 2022). Furthermore, since the centralisation of information was not prioritised, the lack of coordination and collaboration between farmers and the MAFI has resulted in data inaccuracies. Due to Malaysia’s tropical climate, high-value commodities such as durian, pineapple, and coconut may be cultivated and exported to generate higher revenue. However, poor branding makes them lose their competitiveness against neighbouring countries.
To tackle the issue of food security, the Malaysian government has developed the National Agrofood Policy 2.0 (2021-2030) (Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industries, 2021). The current government sets out five core initiatives:
1. Encourage modernisation and smart agriculture
- Enhance research and development (R&D) and adopt technology to accelerate the process of modernisation.
- Intensify more innovation programmes to help with agrotechnology advancement.
2. Strengthen the local market and increase high-demand export-oriented output
- Create better collaboration with the private sector to strengthen the commercialisation of high-value products.
- Magnify the MAFI’s role in leading agricultural investments to reinforce the local market.
3. Develop talent that satisfies the industry’s demand
- Increase the effectiveness of the sector’s development officers to attract suitable young talents.
- Promote inclusivity among the workers in the sector.
4. Enhance sustainable agricultural practices and food systems
- Reduce food waste along the value chain.
- Increase the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices.
- Promote the conservation of biodiversity.
5. Create a conducive business environment and a robust institutional framework
- Drive end-to-end digitalisation of the value chain.
- Increase agrofood-related investment in infrastructure and governance.
- Improve the financial services available to food producers.
To close the gap between the demand and supply of resources within the agriculture industry, the Malaysian government should focus on the following two proposed solutions to improve food security within the country:
1. Reverse the brain drain.
- Malaysians’ current perception of people working in the agricultural industry is negative, as it is despised socially and culturally (Abdullah, Samah and Othman, 2012).
- According to a survey conducted by Employment Hero in 2021, 70 percent of university graduates have planned to leave Malaysia to work elsewhere due to low wages (Bernama, 2021).
- The government should work on policies to raise the minimum wage and hold campaigns to spread more awareness of the agriculture industry among the youth to change the qualified youth’s perception towards the sector and ensure that they can survive on the income earned.
- TalentCorp should play an active role in bringing qualified Malaysians back from overseas, which could increase productivity in the sector due to the technological expertise brought back by the talents.
2. Modernise and localise the food supply chain through the following strategies:
|Increase investment in the R&D of local food production||
|Promote Urban Agriculture||
According to the United Nations, Malaysia has a positive annual population growth estimate of 1.2 percent from 2020 to 2025, with the population projected to increase to 33.2 million in 2022 (Murugiah, 2022). Thus, if Malaysia does not react immediately to improve its food security, it will become increasingly dependent on imports from other countries. As a result, Malaysia could face a growing trade deficit of food products and a decrease in its bargaining power on a global scale.
In conclusion, better food security is vital to the sustainable development of a country because a country’s development is built on humans, who require a sustainable way to acquire food to survive securely. Without food security, social and emotional distress would render the nation helpless. With survival at risk, despair would overtake the nation, leaving development at the back of the nation’s mind.
Malaysia is a blessed, strategically located country with few natural disasters and abundant natural resources. It is hoped that the Malaysian government and policymakers will do their part in driving Malaysia to become a more sustainable nation where all levels of society are cared for. Hence, Malaysia must react in time to ensure the health, stability, and prosperity of the nation and its people.
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Prepared by: Anne Ng Xin En; Muhammad Hafizuddin Hakim
Reviewed by: Nasir Ali
Edited by: Angellina Choo