By Dr Salini Devi Rajendran
Food is a sensitive commodity and the most essential for humans’ survival. Its security for people globally means having sufficient affordable nutritious, or a state of good food supplies to satisfy the everyday needs of people on a regular basis.
Today, food security has emerged as a major national and global concern and has become one of the most pressing worldwide problems that call for solutions. Our current local food systems are becoming difficult to provide sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets people's food consumption patterns and dietary needs for a healthy lifestyle.
Food insecurity was already on the rise before COVID-19. The pandemic is an additional threat to food systems with the rise in food inflation, and supply chain disruptions. The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on many small-scale food producers. Furthermore, the pandemic has had a negative impact on international trade and globalisation, as well to the overall global food ecosystem.
Among the most influential reasons, fertilizer prices have risen dramatically last year. This has resulted in an increase in the price of Malaysia's primary commodity, palm oil. Lower supply from producer countries, for an instance the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflicts, have contributed to the rise in fertilizer prices in Malaysia, which has recently become a pressing issue.
Adding to that, increases in raw material costs such as crude oil and natural gas, which resulted in greater transportation costs, and exchange rate fluctuations were among the factors that contributed to the increase in fertilizer prices. For Malaysia, it relies heavily on fertilizer imports from countries such as China, the United States, Indonesia, Canada, and Russia.
Apart from that, disruptions in the supply chain of imports from neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Indonesia were also among the causes of food price increases. The Department of Statistics Malaysia explains that Malaysia continues to rely on food imports based on the Import Dependency Ratio (IDR). The IDR confirmed Malaysia's reliance on imports of mutton, mango, ginger, and beef to meet local consumption.
Approximately 70 per cent of imported mutton came from Australia, while mango and beef came primarily from Thailand, Indonesia and India. Malaysia's total food imports reached RM55.5 billion in 2020, compared to RM33.8 billion in exports.
In association with the self-sufficiency ratio (SSR), the SSR for chicken and duck eggs, at 113.5 per cent, is the only item in the livestock category that exceeded 100 per cent in 2020 (Source: Department of Statistics Malaysia, DOSM, 2021). This means that Malaysia can sustain this food product. However, as demonstrated by the recent chicken supply shortage scenario, even a high level of self-sufficiency (SSL) does not guarantee food availability. On top of that, Malaysia is currently experiencing an egg shortage, which is depressing Malaysian consumers. The shortage was caused by poultry farms cutting back on production due to rising prices for maize and soya bean meals, the two main ingredients in chicken feed.
The combination of the aforementioned factors has resulted in Malaysia continuing to bear a double burden of food insecurity and relying on imports to meet its consumers' needs and demands. High reliance on imported agricultural inputs has impacted the stability of the food supply and food prices. In fact, high food prices have triggered a global crisis, pushing millions more into extreme poverty and exacerbating hunger and malnutrition. This urgent issue requires serious attention and concrete policy measures to resolve. Inequalities and issues in our current food system prevent adequate food security for all.
The possible solutions
Considering the current scenario, the local food ecosystem can be redesigned to actively combat not only food security issues but also other global concerns such as climate change and biodiversity loss, as well as to promote human health and lower overall societal costs. We can create a circular economy for food by reconnecting communities with local food production and changing the way we grow food, design food products, and manage by-products and waste.
In the circular economy concept, small-scale farms should be encouraged to start practising farming techniques such as intercropping and permaculture, use organic fertilizers rather than chemical fertilizers, and practise rotational grazing. Farmers may be able to reduce their reliance on high-priced chemical fertilizers by implementing this strategy. This improves the local ecosystem's overall quality while also promoting good human health and protecting ecosystems.
Green technology or eco-innovations in agriculture is also a potential driver of a circular economy as the capabilities of green technology such as sensing new knowledge, products, and processes provide competitive advantages. However, there is a lack of upskilling opportunities and financial incentives offered to small-scale farmers.
Many small-scale farmers find it very challenging and are not motivated to invest more money and resources to expand their farming sites as well boost their agricultural productivity. Now, small-scale farmers should be offered equal opportunity to use technologies to improve climate-smart agriculture, which aims to increase agricultural productivity. Related government agencies should open training opportunities for farmers who wish to upgrade their skills and master agricultural technologies applications that may aid to boost their crop productivity.
Implementing the circular economy will result in a sustainable food system in all three main pillars: environmental, economic, and social. The circular economy has the potential to transform the agriculture-food industry into one that is more resilient, inclusive, sustainable, and competitive. The transition from a linear to a circular economy may promote and strengthen 4Bs – better production, better nutrition, better environment, and better life which could enhance the sustainable growth of the agri-food industry and a food-secure world for all.
Moving forward, the new government should prioritise the food economy since the production growth is smaller than the demand growth. Although subsidies and incentives from the government may provide short-term solutions, the country needs to look over long-term strategies to spearhead and speed up the transformation of the agri-food industry. Hence, the new government should play a key role to build an ecosystem in overcoming food insecurity in the nation.
Despite relying on other countries for the majority of its agri-food supplies, Malaysia should be positioned to become a "Food Hub" through agricultural transformation and modernisation that focuses on domestic food production. Novel farming systems, farming management, green agro-technology, and effective food networks may boost the expansion of local agri-food value chains, as well as accelerate agri-food sectors into a competitive and sustainable industry, in line with the government's Shared Prosperity Vision 2030.
Therefore, national policymakers must constantly solicit ideas from all stakeholders, including farmers, producers, agricultural companies, social and environmental representatives, researchers, nutritionists, and businesses, to achieve such a holistic transformation of food systems.
Dr Salini Devi Rajendran is Senior Lecturer at the School of Food Studies and Gastronomy, Taylor’s University.