by Maria Chin Abdullah

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--Food is a fundamental human right, as per article 25 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In line with the second goal of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to eliminate hunger and ensure all people including poor and at-risk peoples have access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food by 2030, it is expected that food insecurity will be eliminated worldwide.

Governments have an obligation not to interfere with the efforts of their citizens to attain food, provide protection when there is an infringement on rights of food, and provide opportunities to aid citizens in food attainment.

In Malaysia, food consumption accounts for a large proportion of what people spend their money on a daily basis. According to the Statistics Department (DOSM), in 2020, paid employment and self-employment, which were the main sources of income, recorded a decrease of 16.1 percent and 9.7 percent respectively. 
The decline was contributed by households or individuals who experienced loss or reduction of income, reduction in working hours, particularly those with the status of employee, self-employed and others.

For those earning less than RM2,500, there was an additional decrease of 12.5 percent of household income. We also witnessed 20.0 percent of households from the M40 group with income between RM4,850 and RM10,959 entering the B40 group. On average, the income of B40 and M40 declined by 15.9 percent and 36.9 percent respectively.

What is also disturbing is the survey conducted by DOSM. It concluded that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the household income and subsequently affected the structure of household groups. Its survey showed that the number of poor households had increased to 639.8 thousand households in 2020 as compared to 405.4 thousand households in 2019.

Meanwhile, the incidence of hardcore poverty is estimated to increase from 0.4 percent in 2019, which involved 27.2 thousand households to 1.0 percent, which involved 78.0 thousand households in 2020.

Food prices in recent times have risen dramatically and have become exorbitant. A number of interrelated factors have contributed to this situation: the war in Ukraine causing rising oil prices to rise further, the Russian food blockade in the Black Sea, the war has also severely restricted fertiliser supplies and there is the inability of supply chains and logistics to get back to normal to cater to pent-up demand after the prolonged shutdowns caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic.  
In Malaysia, our over-reliance on foreign labour – many of whom have not returned to work in our farms, wholesale and retail outlets, and recent torrential downpours have affected harvests and crop yields.

All this is compounded by our country’s own over-reliance on food imports as a result of the neglect of the staple growing rural economy here.

In 2022 DOSM asserted that the value of Malaysia’s imports surpassed the RM100 billion mark for the first time ever in March 2022 after growing 29.9% to RM104.9 billion from RM80.8 billion in 2021.

Consumption goods alone (8.3 percent of total imports) registered an increase of 22.4 percent from RM7.1 billion in 2021 to RM8.7 billion in 2022. Added to this, the deteriorating balance of payments situation in the country has caused the value of our ringgit to fall against most major currencies, thereby making the price of food imports even higher.

Key sources of protein like chicken, ikan kembung and ikan cencaru have risen 16.7 percent, 18.7 percent and 76.9 percent in the last 3 months, respectively. Vegetables such as kacang panjang and kubis bulat have gone up 100 percent. Chilies, which are already expensive at RM15/kg, have risen by 24.9 percent.

Even though Malaysia has traditionally been an agricultural society, the recent over reliance on imported food has left the rakyat in a tight squeeze.

The government tried by intensifying subsidies for food items including chicken, eggs, and rice, but evidently that has not stopped food prices from soaring. Lately with the hold on chicken supplies, it has escalated the food security challenge for the poor.

The Malaysian government needs to pay more serious attention to this matter. There is no holistic approach from the Keluarga Malaysia government to solve this problem. 
Not only is the Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry responsible for this, but other branches of the government should step up to the task of enhancing food supplies and security.

Here are a few key issues that need to be addressed and resolved:

1. Strengthen the present traditional farming methods and fully utilise modern agri-science and technology that will bring about a much more sustainable ecosystem and industry.

2. The Finance Ministry should empower budding farmers or small-scale farmers by providing them with tax incentives and ample credit to replant fallow land, acquire seeds and higher yielding varieties, fertilisers and technology.

3. Oil palm and rubber plantations must be made to allocate land for intercropping by the Plantation Industries and Commodities Ministry through a system of fiscal incentives. This will increase land use for vegetables including root vegetables, fruits and animal husbandry, not to mention add to plantation workers’ incomes.

4. The Youth and Sports Ministry and Education Ministry must develop training programmes and a syllabus to develop youth involvement in the agriculture sector. This would pave the way for future more resilient farmers to help sustain the Malaysian food ecosystem.

5. Establish an effective monitoring enforcement of the prices of goods, especially to prevent drastic fluctuation of prices of essential goods.

As noted by DOSM, the economic fallout from the pandemic has added to unemployment and under-employment. Many who are looking for work are finding they are being exploited with low wages. While the minimum wage of RM1,500 has been implemented since May 1, 2022, there is no mechanism to ensure that every corporation and small business are complying with the minimum wage. 
An effective monitoring mechanism ought to be in place to prevent further suffering of the poor and hardcore poor. With two years of Covid-19 and economic restrictions, the government must also not discount those earning above RM2,500 who are also struggling due to reduced or lack of income.

I certainly would like to see an anti-poverty commission being established to keep track of access and distribution of income and resources. This will help reduce having news of families only being able to feed themselves a few days of the week, or scraping the bottom to keep their families alive, regardless of race, religion, or other social economic background.

Malaysia is well-known throughout the world for its delicious dishes and fruits. It would indeed be a sad situation if the rakyat were paying a hefty price just to feed themselves when there should be more than enough to go around.