Sky-high prices escalate food insecurity

IN the past month, my weekly grocery shopping at the market has been frustrating. I certainly feel the pinch of escalating prices.

Time and again, I hear of fellow consumers complaining about the shockingly exorbitant prices for vegetables, while traders complain that there is nothing much they can do.

The price hike is attributed to limited supply, due to lower domestic production as a result of unfavourable weather, pricier inputs, higher transport costs, manpower shortages and also higher import costs.

Indeed, the skyrocketing price of vegetables, with increases of up to 200%, is very worrying. This comes on the back of rising prices of chicken and eggs, which contribute to a higher cost of living, adding to the woes of many households struggling to make ends meet.

The possibility of vegetables prices remaining high until after the Chinese New Year holidays will eventually lead to growing food insecurity.

Defined as a disruption of food intake or eating patterns due to limited money or other resources, food insecurity is also one of the root causes of malnutrition.

The pandemic has caused the number of undernourished across Malaysia to continue to rise, especially among vulnerable households which have been disproportionately affected.

They include the Orang Asli, low-income and welfare-recipient households, and the elderly. Globally, a projected 660 million people may still face hunger in 2030 as a result of the lasting effects of Covid-19, as reported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Even before the pandemic, Malaysia has been one of the very few Asian countries facing three forms of malnutrition: obesity, stunting and anaemia.

Specifically, the National Health and Morbidity Survey 2019 revealed that one-in-two (50.1%) adults are either overweight or obese, while slightly more than one-in-five (21.8%) children under the age of five are stunted and almost three-in-10 (29.9%) women of reproductive age are anaemic.

More recently in February 2021, the deputy education minister said 25% of children in Malaysia are either underweight or stunted because of poor dietary habits, while another 20% are overweight or obese due to inappropriate dietary choices coming from low-income families, including difficulties in obtaining food.

This alarming double burden of malnutrition, in the form of stunting and obesity, leads to long-term health effects, whereby the former results in greater susceptibility to infectious diseases and irreversible impairment in childhood development.

Obesity, on the other hand, increases the risk of non-communicable diseases. The substantial prevalence of malnutrition among children leads to lifelong economic consequences including impaired learning potential, compromised future labour productivity and higher medical expenses, which reinforce a vicious cycle of intergenerational inequality.

In other words, this has resulted in vulnerable groups being caught in the poverty-nutrition trap. As such, proactive measures are needed to enhance food security as a means to address nutritional inequality.

Specifically, Malaysia needs to take concrete steps to promote the availability of nutritional and safe foods at reasonable prices for normal growth and the development of an active and healthy life.

In addition to immediate term price monitoring efforts such as Ops Pasar, which seeks to prevent any form of profiteering at every level of the distribution network, we need to promote the need for greater consumer awareness and an efficient market information system.

Besides that, market failures such as the existence of organised crime, the lack of competition and the prevalence of hoarding need to be effectively tackled.

Furthermore, import duties and tariffs on consumable items and intermediate inputs used in agricultural production should be reduced to lower costs.

In the medium to long term, we need to build a more sustainable and resilient agri-food sector against any future shocks, including poor weather.

This can be through an increased investment in agricultural innovation, and research and development (R&D) for greater productivity.

All in all, we definitely need to prioritise food security and the availability of nutritious food at reasonable prices as we seek to grow a healthier society.

There are no two ways about it. How are we going to achieve the goal of a healthier Keluarga Malaysia in the recently announced Agenda Nasional Malaysia Sihat (ANMS) if the price of vegetables remains sky high? – November 29, 2021.

* Benedict Weerasena is an economist for Bait Al-Amanah.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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