MAY 26 — Food security has become a talking point among Malaysians as they begin to feel the pain of spending more money to buy the same amount of groceries. However, since there is no proper land and spatial planning from previous and current administrations for food production, this has resulted in the focus on commercial (including residential) and industrial uses.
Compared to 1980, arable land in Malaysia decreased from 3.1% (1,027,140 hectares) to 2.5% (826,000 hectares) in 2018. The decrease in the size of arable land could also be attributed to the soil erosion/degradation and deforestation caused by climate change.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines arable land as land currently used or likely to be used to grow seasonal crops.
EMIR Research has highlighted how little state governments have done to allocate land for food production in “Malaysia entering a serious food security ‘conundrum’”, The Malaysian Reserve (21 May 2022).
Although Malaysia has introduced many initiatives such as the Urban Community Farming Policy (UCFP) and the National Agribusiness Policy (2021-2030) to encourage local food production in these two years, several obstacles have prevented small farmers to get involved in community agriculture.
Although there is no official definition of community farming, the term could encompass the practice of farmers examining the fundamentals by adding organic content to sand. The sand will turn into living soil for agricultural production.
A yogi, mystic and visionary known as Sadhguru, who led the Save Soil movement for 24 years, said the minimum organic matter content should be between 3-6% for normal agricultural soil.
But, as things stand, many smallholder farmers still face constraints on the land issue. They are only eligible to obtain a Temporary Occupation Permit (TOL) – a form of land permit that must be renewed annually. If the government or developers wish to reclaim the land the following year, farmers have no choice but to return the land.
Thus, many farmers are not motivated to invest more money and other resources (i.e. technology and labor) in their farms. At the same time, they also could not purchase additional land (whether owned by the federal or state government) to expand their farm sites inherited from their families.
A worker is pictured at a vegetable farm in Cameron Highlands on June 13, 2021. – Image by Ahmad Zamzahuri
In addition, the Department of Agriculture (DoA) and other related government agencies do not provide enough training opportunities for farmers who want to improve their skills and master technological applications that can increase the productivity of their crops. As a result, some farmers find it difficult to produce high quality food crops due to limited technical knowledge in conducting agricultural activities.
In addition to the Malaysian Good Agricultural Practices (MyGAP) certification requirement, farmers who wish to practice organic farming must apply the Malaysian Organic Certification System (MyOrganic), ensuring that agricultural products are free from chemicals and pesticides by more to be safe to eat.
Such a measure indirectly imposes additional hassles on local farmers who aspire to produce more food crops for the benefit of the nation. The Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI) indicated through its journal article publication titled “Organic Agriculture in Malaysia” in 2016 that farmers must practice organic farming for two years before that the farm can receive the MyOrganic certificate.
During the first two years, farmers cannot affix “organic” labels to their finished products. They must sell at the standard market price, similar to products that adopt conventional farming methods.
Unlike organic farming, conventional farming manages resource inputs (i.e.
In addition, the validity of the MyOrganic certificate lasts only one year. Recertification must be done within six months before the expiration date, according to the official portal of the DoA.
Also, the government does not provide adequate financial support ranging from soil conservation, production costs, labor cost, packaging and storage facilities. The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which has contributed to the rising cost of food ingredients and the further increase in the minimum wage of RM300 per month per employee, would eventually lead to farmers charging retailers/consumers a higher selling price to break even.
The increased frequency of extreme weather events would also discourage farmers from expanding their existing farms. Unusual rainfall in December last year (more than 2500mm of rain, equivalent to annual rainfall in 2020) eventually led to severe flooding in eight Malaysian states. About 5,000 herders and farmers were affected, causing nearly RM67.72 million in losses to the agribusiness sector.
Therefore, to promote interest in community agriculture among Malaysians, the current administration needs to address the outstanding land issues, lack of development opportunities and financial incentives, in addition to the complication of the application of the MyOrganic certificate to farmers.
Once farmers’ welfare is taken care of, the government can then look for ways to motivate citizens to get involved in community farming through education programs and awareness campaigns.
Here are some of the policy recommendations from EMIR Research for the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industries (MAFI), as the lead ministry, to consider:
1. Amend Taiwan’s “Land-to-the-Tiller” program to limit land ownership in Malaysia. At the very least, farmland will not be purely dominated by a small number of wealthy individuals or corporations. When the government could buy back excess land by compensating large landowners who owned large plots of land, smallholder farmers would have a better chance of obtaining government-owned land.
To ensure affordability, the government could also determine the rental ceiling for the allocated land. Thus, landless farmers and smallholders could rent secured land at a lower price for agricultural purposes.
In addition, the government could promote permanent land rental contracts for smallholder farmers. When farmers’ tenure security is guaranteed, they can start adopting advanced technological applications and sustainable farming techniques that usually require a large sum of money at the beginning of the implementation phase.
2. Organize seminars and fairs for farmers to understand and apply the concepts, benefits, associated risks and adoption methods of community agriculture.
The DOA and state agricultural agencies could implement community agriculture as pilot programs to facilitate knowledge sharing and human resource development.
They could initiate a series of seminars at least twice a month among farmers.
Some topics, including how to produce fertilizer yourself without chemicals or pesticides, and how to transform available items (e.g. recycling plant pots, kitchen waste composts, etc.) from the middle Surrounding agricultural implements, for example, could be potential topics for discussion.
MAFI could host the national agricultural fairs and seminars at least once a year, giving farmers the opportunity to connect with relevant stakeholders from the private sector, government and educational institutions, etc.
3. Identify more hotspots that are not vulnerable to disasters in each Malaysian state (including federal territories – Kuala Lumpur, Labuan and Putrajaya) to establish more permanent food production parks (TKPMs) in urban and rural areas .
Nevertheless, the government must put in place an appropriate food production ecosystem – processing, warehouse storage, post-harvest handling, distribution and marketing – to guarantee the freshness of agricultural products.
4. Introduce a three-month agricultural technology incubation program for beginning farmers or smallholders to learn technological applications related to agro-food products, biodiversity, biotechnology and food processing.
MARDI could spearhead the initiative through which farmers are given the opportunity to brainstorm marketing and funding strategies – to promote and popularize community farming.
Fiscal incentives and subsidies (e.g., matching ringgit for ringgit) can provide farmers with the opportunity to improve soil health and condition through modern technology applications such as the Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data and Artificial Intelligence (AI), in addition to Pest Control and Water Management.
After the start of the incubation program, MARDI could help farmers establish strategic collaborations with relevant government agencies, the private sector and NGOs to market their agricultural products. In the long term, this initiative would increase the food supply in the country and indirectly contribute to the long-term stability of food prices.
In conclusion, community agriculture would be the ideal way to promote the regeneration of climate-resilient soils and sustainable livelihoods among Malaysians. With vegetable gardens and fruit trees within a 5 km radius of an urban or rural environment, people could relax by walking or jogging around the community farm. Smallholder farmers would also have the opportunity to earn higher incomes once they acquire the knowledge and skills to plant nutritious food crops.
When the time comes, the current administration will need to show strong political will to stimulate community farming culture in Malaysia. This would allow Malaysia to gradually reduce its dependence on other countries for food imports, thereby improving the quality of life of the people.
* Amanda Yeo is a research analyst at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.
** This is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.