Source Aliran

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--Malaysians have taken to social media to vent their anger and frustration over the shortage of foodstuffs, such as chicken, and the rising prices of such products in the country.

But some are relieved after the government did away with approved permits for food imports.

The foodstuff price hike is due to a local food production shortage, partly brought about by the labour shortage and higher costs of imported fertilisers and pesticides by 50 percent and 100 percent, respectively.

The Russia-Ukraine war has also disrupted wheat supply worldwide.

Following this, the government moved to ease food importation to ensure sufficient supply in the country.

But local stakeholders, such as animal breeders and farmers, are concerned that the move will adversely affect them in the long run, as importing food will make local food production less economically feasible and subsequently endanger food security in the country.

This can also be aggravated by uncertain weather conditions caused by climate change.

Malaysia is exposed to the vagaries of global food production and pricing. Its risks of exposure are heightened by its heavy dependence on food imports, which reached a record high of RM55.5bn in 2020.

It is disturbing that food import expenses will increase if the value of the ringgit drastically falls against the US dollar as the country pays the producer country in US dollars.

With this knowledge in mind, one cannot imagine the huge challenge that a food price hike poses to the vulnerable and those who struggle to put food on the table.

Such a situation can drive someone in desperation to, say, steal a can of sardines and end up being thrown into the slammer.

In other words, free-for-all imports are not a panacea to our food problem in the long run.

There has to be a comprehensive long-term strategy and policy undertaken by the government to increase the country’s capacity to produce food to meet the needs of 32 million people.

With food security in mind, the government ought to make more state land accessible to farmers for agricultural use and provide subsidies for, say, the purchase of machinery used in food production.

Indeed, certain incentives would go a long way towards increasing food production capacity of not only farmers but also fisherfolk and ranchers.

In this regard, the government may want to take a leaf out of the late Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussein’s Green Book Plan in the 1970s, when any farmer, individual or group who wanted to farm on government land would be permitted to do so in an attempt to increase food production.

Seen in a wider social context, it, therefore, boggles the mind when certain state governments evict small farmers from farm land – some of which they have cultivated for decades – robbing them of their source of income and jeopardising our food security.

For instance, recently vegetable farmers in 11 areas in Perak were served eviction notices by the state government to make way for commercial development, despite these areas being an important source of vegetables for consumers not in Perak and elsewhere in the country.

Such drastic action defies common sense when – according to Parti Sosialis Malaysia chairman Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, who is providing assistance to these farmers – only 5 percent of eight million hectares of agricultural land in Malaysia is estimated to have been used for vegetable cultivation.

To put things in perspective, about 25 percent of land in Malaysia is used for agricultural purposes. Of that amount, oil palm plantations take up 5.5 million hectares and rubber about one million hectares, which constitute over 80 percent of agricultural land being used for commodity production.

Another 0.7 million hectares of land is used for padi cultivation, while only 0.8 million hectares (10 percent of all agricultural land) is used for all other crops (like pepper and coconut) as well as animal husbandry and fresh-water fish rearing.

Such neglect in agriculture can be traced back to the Dr Mahathir Mohamad administration in the 1980s, whose development thinking was oriented towards industrialisation over the years. We now reap what was sowed then. Incidentally, the renaming of Universiti Pertanian Malaysia to Universiti Putra Malaysia symbolised such a paradigm shift.

In the past, we used to have plenty of local fruits and produce, but now a lot of these food items are imported.

Even many households have stopped growing basic fruits, such as papaya, banana, mangoes and rambutan, which were in abundance in the old days.

Apart from that, we have allowed agricultural farmland to be easily converted to industrial and mixed development use. As a result, we have, in particular, a glut of high-end property.

Given such a social context, a Penang state project to reclaim land for commercial purposes over a rich fishing ground is clearly appalling, especially if we are serious about pursuing the objective of food security and sustainable development.

Similarly, it is unbelievable that a fishing enclave and the surrounding self-sustaining fishing community are to be replaced with sports facilities by an international school in Penang. It appears that certain priorities have been misplaced at our own peril.

Short-term gains, particularly financial, should not bedazzle us into believing that money can always buy food.