All must help avert food crisis

THE Agriculture and Food Industries Ministry (Mafi) has assured that food supply in the country has not reached crisis level.

The story started in the 1980s when Malaysia pushed for industrialisation. Under Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, efforts were put into revitalising the agricultural sector. It continued under the next prime minister.

However, the decision that it would be led by government agencies and government-linked companies was a big mistake. There were leakages and corruption. Ideas like padi estates and smart farming benefited consultants.

Fast forward, in 2020, a cabinet committee on food security, chaired by the prime minister, was created to formulate the national food security policy and generate higher income for agriculture frontliners.

It would seek input and views from various stakeholders (academics, industry players, civil society group as well as farmers, breeders and fishermen).

With 11 permanent members (all ministers), it is committed to ensuring that the level of food security is always stable in terms of availability, accessibility, safety and affordability at all times. And in line with the 12th Malaysia Plan, Shared Prosperity Vision and Sustainable Development Goals.

Last October, Mafi proposed to set up a food security committee in each state to facilitate cooperation between the federal and state governments to help realise the National Agrofood Policy 2021-2030.

We also have a National Food Security Policy Action Plan 2021-2025 to strengthen national food securities.

In January, the Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry said Malaysia is facing inflation and the government is putting in place measures to control rising food prices.

A couple of weeks ago, a former prime minister wants the government to revive the food security council. I don’t seem to find one except for a National Food Safety and Nutrition Council under the Health Ministry.

Sixty per cent of our food is imported and we import mutton (88%) and beef (76.4%) and we were once self-sufficient in poultry.

In 2019, we only produced 46% of vegetables, 70% of rice, 61% of fruits, 25% of meat and 5% of dairy to meet our requirements.

In 2020, Malaysia imported and exported US$43.2 million (RM189 million) and US$7.39 million pork respectively.

In April, food inflation was higher year-on-year at 4.1%. For example, satay and rice (side dish) recorded a higher increase of 7.1%.

More than a year ago, we had supply issues with red chillies and red onions. But in 2018, Mafi mobilised a task force to address the cost efficiency of red chilli production so that its local variety can remain competitive in the market.

There we are, the first part of the story.

Next, we blame price increases on the rise in fertiliser prices, logistics costs, labour shortages, the Covid-19 pandemic, the weather and Ukraine.

How about the state governments? Are they doing enough?

Farmers are being evicted while cartels and politically connected companies are alleged to run protection rackets. And non-stop building of real estates.

What happened to the investigation into claims about existence of cartels and middlemen who profited more than the farmers or retailers?

Approved permits (AP) is part of the problem. Apart from unfair allocation, there are also misuse. Restrictive regulations create opportunities for greedy politicians, bureaucrats and cronies.

There is also inefficiency in distributing subsidy payments. Mafi said only RM50 million subsidies have been given out of RM729 million allocated since February 2022.

A report said about 40% of Johor’s vegetable produce is exported to Singapore.

The Young Agropreneur Programme and My Future Agro did not seem to be attractive.

It is noteworthy for the government to abolish the AP, set up an agrofood fund of RM500 million in soft loans and consider some tax incentives.

These are short-term measures, but how about the long term?

More imports translate into more outflow of ringgit and will further weaken it, coupled with imported inflation.

We should ask ourselves, how effective is the cabinet committee and the various policy statements and action plans? Did the committee seek input and views from various stakeholders and how often were the engagements?

The Consumers’ Association of Penang has expressed regret that its past warnings to the authorities about food insecurity dangers had been ignored.

Moving ahead, revisit the policy statements, action plans and have more engagements and due regard to environment and social impact.

While the Keluarga Menteri is working on the above, we, Keluarga Malaysia, must do our part, too. Try to reduce meat consumption to reduce imports. Hoteliers must also be mindful in its buffet spread. We had the National Feedlot Corporation to increase beef production, but it failed miserably and talks to settle a lawsuit is taking too long.

There should be clear attraction in giving prominence to public health, thereby reducing healthcare costs.

Mafi may be correct on the crisis situation, but it seems the crisis now is on the people in the whole ecosystem. We need honest and diligent players to achieve results.

“And the earth We have spread out (like a carpet); set thereon mountains firm and immovable; and produced therein all kinds of things in due balance. And We have provided therein means of subsistence, for you and for those for whose sustenance you are not responsible.” [Quran: Hijr 15:19–20]

There is enough to go around and we must regenerate rather than degrade natural resources.

In the meantime, committees looking after water supply, please be on the alert on the impending dry season.

What say you… – June 4, 2022.

* Saleh Mohammed reads The Malaysian Insight.

* 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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