We love our food. Whether its nasi lemak, chicken rice, char koay teow, or roti canai, food is a unifying factor for all of us.

But have we paused to consider where all that food comes from? The eggs in your nasi lemak, the rice that we eat – how much of it is imported? How much is grown locally? And if trade collapses overnight – can we sustain ourselves as a nation?

The issue of food security is something Malaysians must consider. In today’s hyperconnected world, food production has morphed from local farm systems into global agricultural behemoths. Ship and planeloads of food criss-cross the globe every day to satisfy the hunger of the masses.

Currently, Malaysia imports 30 per cent of its food. That number isn’t exorbitant (at least not compared to Hawaii, which imports 92 per cent), but it is significant considering Malaysia’s size, population, and agriculture sector. Local food thinking is not only growing food in one’s back yard – it’s also eliminating the reliance on large-scale manufacturers and the logistics of food transport.

Mangoes being imported into Europe

Importing agricultural products provides opportunities: focusing on more profitable sectors, consuming ‘exotic’ or seasonal goods year-round, and profiting from lower production costs (and thus prices) in other countries. If well functioning, a diversified import policy may be essential for securing food supply in years with national crop failures.

But import numbers don’t tell the whole story. Malaysia could theoretically become 100 per cent self-sufficient in rice, but the country chooses to import rice from other countries due to cost and quality of rice. That’s not reliance on imports – that’s being choosy. But for a country like Saudi Arabia, there’s less of a choice. The kingdom is flush with oil, but it is still in the middle of the desert. Therefore, it imports 80 per cent of its food – a number that rises every year. So self sufficiency comes down to whether a country could feed its people with its own production, not whether it actually is.

By that measure, which is the one used by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), very few countries qualify. The only country in Europe that’s self-sufficient is France. Other countries in the exclusive club of self-sufficiency include Canada, Australia, Russia, India, Argentina, Myanmar, Thailand, the United States and a few small others.

Countries’ classification according to their ability to produce the crop products they currently consume, considering current water and land productivities as well as available (i.e. unused) water and productive land. Countries coloured in dark and light green have sufficient land and water to produce what they currently consume, but countries in light green are approaching at least one of those boundaries (source: https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/8/1/014046#erl452631s3)

There are many reasons food security has become a problem in Malaysia. The main one is that food crops are a lot harder to plant and maintain compared with oil palm. The lifespan of an oil palm tree is 25 years while that of most food crops is a few months to a few years.

As of 2018, there are five million hectares of land in Malaysia being cultivated for palm oil, compared with just one million hectares for food crops. A typical plantation company would have thousands of acres of land to cultivate oil palm. Food crop farmers, on the other hand, only have about five acres each to work on.

Furthermore, agriculture in Malaysia tends to follow trends. Some years ago, dragon fruit was all the rage among farmers as Malaysia’s tropical climate, rainfall, intensity of sunlight and soil types proved to be very suitable for this exotic fruit. A few years later, the buzz died down after the plants were wiped out by certain fungal diseases. Many farmers stopped growing them altogether.

Currently, durian and coconut are the in-demand crops. Though current demand makes growing these fruits profitable, there is concern over what happens when demand eventually tapers off. This is especially so with durian, which not only needs great care and water – it is also highly seasonal. Concern over rainforest clearing for durian planting is also mounting among several NGOs who monitor land usage.

But there are bright spots on the horizon. Farm productivity and innovation is increasing all over the world. Better seeds, more effective pesticides, and more efficient irrigation is driving this trend. Technology is also revitalising the agriculture sector – with drones, IoT, and satellite mapping enabling farmers to better manage their crops.

A hydroponics farm in Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Will this mean food security for Malaysia? The country is blessed with good soil, year-round sunshine, and excellent weather for all kinds of crops. The country can absolutely become 100 per cent food sufficient. But that will require a concerted push by both the government and SMEs to focus on agriculture. Malaysians too must support the movement – by buying local and championing local produce.

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