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Cash crops for export vs farming for food – Thoughts on Malaysia and Europe

Volunteers helping out at a farm in Bangsar - BENEDICT LOPEZ

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Paul Lim wonders if Malaysia should aim for food self-sufficiency and food security instead of exporting more cash crops to earn more money.

Reading articles of Malaysia’s dispute with the EU over palm oil, I thought of food security in Malaysia. Now living off the fertile soil of Belgium, I think of food security in Belgium too.

These thoughts and some observations have prompted me to write this article.

Levels of food security or self-sufficiency

I live in a large house with nine others in a social housing scheme. The house has a large garden, and we live off the vegetables grown in this garden – although we are not yet self-sufficient. It is our attempt at ensuring food security and self-sufficiency at the household level.

As for houses in Malaysia, what do their occupants do with their gardens? Most people grow plants with flowers for beauty, but few ever consider planting food crops? Why not?  The simple answer: the supermarket has it all. 

Here where I live, the local elected council makes available free plots of land for people to cultivate vegetables and fruit. This helps to improve household food self-sufficiency and food security. Gardening for food production is also a productive and healthy hobby for nature lovers. 

In Malaysia, do local governments provide free plots of lands for households to grow their own food? Almost unheard of. Instead, the poor who live on state land and grow their own food are evicted when the land is sold to private parties. Food self-sufficiency and food security in the hands of the people are not encouraged.

This house where I live is next to farm fields and the woods in a rural area. The fields are tilled throughout the year and planted with sugar beet, carrots, broccoli, thyme, coriander and black pepper – through both intensive and organic farming. There is also dairy farming and other animal farming for meat-eaters in the vicinity. Such is the agricultural scene in Belgium and in many other European countries. 

Europe thus enjoys a diversified agricultural economy. Produce can move between countries of the single market. So there is more self-sufficiency and food security in many parts of Europe. Food security and self-sufficiency have been the cornerstone of European agriculture policies. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy subsidises European farmers in both sectors – intensive farming and organic farming. 

Food security is prioritised and forms the base of agricultural development policy. Nations are not forced to choose between focusing on agriculture and on manufacturing. They strike a balance – adopting the agricultural path, without neglecting manufacturing and the fourth industrialisation. About 40% of the EU’s budget is for agriculture.

What about Malaysia? Malaysia has not been self-sufficient in rice production for a long time. Reports show Malaysia has been importing about 30%-40% of rice over the last 30 years and will continue to be a net importer. 

Questions have also been raised about the failure of a heavily subsidised industrialisation programme (“Where does Malaysia’s paddy and rice industry stand?”). Land used to cultivate rice has been used to build factories.

Malaysian leaders seem to have bought into the idea that manufacturing, industrialising and now the fourth industrialisation revolution are the only way to move up the development ladder towards “first world” status. The country is still on this linear path. It was like swinging from one side of the pendulum to the other side, neglecting agriculture.  

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In Malaysia, agriculture seems stuck along the colonial path of promoting monoculture, ie from rubber to oil palm oil to… what’s next? Coconut? Cocoa? Rubber and palm oil cannot promote food security/food self-sufficiency. Palm oil has become a pillar of Malaysian exports along with fossil fuels, making Malaysia dependent on world demand. 

Oil palm smallholders are thus forced to depend on their sometimes meagre monetary returns to buy their daily food and other needs when they should cultivate food crops for food security and self-sufficiency. Now, faced with reduced biodiesel imports into the EU and amid the talk of looking for new markets, Malaysia should realise it ought not to have put all its eggs in a few baskets: Europe, India and China. This resulted from short-term thinking.

The former prime minister did highlight the need to diversify into vegetable and fruit farming, encouraging Felda landowners to convert their small plots of rubber and oil palm plantation land (“Dr M: Farmers must change mindset and diversify”). Indeed, leaders should provide incentives to farmers to change gears. 

But can the smallholders’ land now be converted to food production? The pesticides, the fungicides? They certainly should not switch from one monoculture crop to another, eg from oil palm to coconut. Instead, they should include various other food crops. A balance has to be struck.

One wonders what kind of long-term thinking went into food security and self-sufficiency in agricultural policy decades ago. Was the policy to go with what we have at the moment, to capitalise on it, and when the next event comes, when the next opportunity arises, to react, ie a reactive policy? 

Has the direction of agricultural policy been a matter of winning votes? It should not be an issue of buying votes, of racial politics. Food security is primary for peoples, for any state.

Why grow high-quality vegetables in Cameron Highlands for the Singapore market when such quality food should be for the Malaysian market? Learn from the story of a lorry transport driver.

We know the answer: higher returns and exports were in the minds of policymakers but not food security. We see where the priorities are. 

Is there an Asean-wide agricultural policy promoting food security and self-sufficiency? I’ve not heard of it, although there is cross-border trade like any other goods. At zero tariffs for agricultural products? I have bought food crops from the wet market coming across from Thailand as touted by its sellers. It that legal or illegal trade? The common person on the street does not care so long as it is cheaper, sweeter and looks good…

Subsidising farmers, smallholders and their interests

Smallholders and small farmers should be subsidised if they are seen as crucial for food security. This subsidising should include their incomes to keep them in agriculture. 

There will not then be this outcry over the plight of smallholders brought to the fore over the EU’s intention to reduce its biodiesel imports. If smallholders had not been pushed into such monoculture production, they would not be in their current dire situation. Oil palm is a short-sighted solution to lift people out of poverty.

While Malaysia legitimately raised the plight of smallholders and their livelihoods, Europe too has its rapeseed farmers with their problems in growing rapeseed for food and for biodiesel, which competes with palm oil. The concerns over their lives are just as legitimate, but fortunately these farmers, unlike their Malaysian counterparts, are not on the monoculture path: they grow other crops too. 

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Still, in France, for example, there is an average of one suicide every two days among farmers. Why? One reason is low incomes, but there are other reasons too. This is also a legitimate concern. 

Farming anywhere is not without its problems. Europe too has to take care of its farmers and defend the interests of its agricultural community. Do not just insist on the fate of Malaysian smallholders, but acknowledge too that European farmers also face their fate. State subsidisation is vital for sustaining farmers and farming.

Changing mindsets at all levels

It is not only top politicians and farmers who need to change their mindsets and diversify. Policymakers too have to rethink food security and self-sufficiency in the long term. Perhaps they are not listened to or are overruled by political masters. 

We therefore need a major shift in our mentality – to prioritise people’s lives in terms of food rather than focusing on cash crops and commodity production in the hope of huge returns from exports. 

If Malaysia needs to produce cash crops for export, then it also means that manufacturing, industrialisation and even the “fourth industrialisation” is not on firm ground. The whole economy has to be diversifed. Such diversification is a given in Europe.

Open market for foreign foods

Ensuring food security and self-sufficiency does not mean refusing imports from outside of Europe. It is so common these days to find bananas and pineapples in European supermarkets. While bananas are grown in Madeira (Portugal), Greece and Italy, they can also be grown in hothouses as with other tropical food plants. 

Maybe one day Europe will attain a certain level of self-sufficiency in tropical food with climate change. I miss papayas. In fact, what I can get in Malaysia, I can get here, including chillies from our hothouse. We all share now in eating a lot of certain common foods wherever we are, except that the recipes are different around the world.

Hence, although Malaysia has referred to the ban on palm oil as protectionism, food protectionism largely does not exist here, when I see what I can get in the local supermarket. I do not have to visit Chinese and Thai supermarkets in the city to buy what I need.

If Malaysia fears protectionism, it should develop its domestic consumption market like China and diversify its export markets. The Pakatan Harapan government had come out encouraging the use of biodiesel in Malaysia. Before that, it was biodiesel for Europe. 

Malaysia should move away from the monoculture path. This requires a change in mindsets. Food security and self-sufficiency should take priority over agriculture for exports.

But those in the know realise that agriculture is always a hot issue in international trade negotiations because of protectionism, eg rice, bananas – and what else? Palm oil, in the case of Malaysia.


Whether it is Malaysia or Europe growing crops, it means a certain history of deforestation to clear the land for planting preceded it. Europe was deforested centuries ago, but the realisation of past mistakes led to reforestation generations ago with parts given over to the productive forest industry. For example, Belgium exports wood and logs to China.

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Caring for the forests of Europe has become more urgent as climate change looms, and some are even using the courts against countries where deforestation takes place.

Farmers are playing an important role in environmental protection, as more of them are turning to environmentally friendly farming techniques, organic farming, the preservation of landscapes, reforestation and the conservation of forests, high-value habitats and biodiversity. Wild animals are being reintroduced. The wolf, the enemy of farmers, is reappearing in Western Europe. 

Malaysia should learn from the mistakes of European nations. Do not argue that they have done certain things, so why can’t we do them. Do not say they have no right to tell us we should not deforest. 

Malaysia should not repeat their mistakes. What is the rate of reforestation? Has it been made an obligation that one tree taken out has to be replaced by another, so to speak? No forests means no animals. The orangutan is a symbol that forests are also the home of animals. We must respect the forests as they are a crucial ecosystem for life. Forests should not be perceived as commodities to generate profits.

Whither farming in Malaysia?

In my household of 10, a retired organic farmer is educating me on farming. From him, I learn about the farmers’ children who do not want to continue the farming tradition of their families. Those who stay and continue farming are better educated scientifically, but there is also the phenomenon of young educated people from non-farming backgrounds going into farming. We see women running farms. Without people, there will not be food security and the agricultural industry. 

I learn from him about the evolution from labour-intensive farming to one that is capital-intensive, high-tech into precision, digitalised and ‘smart’. These new ways of farming are beyond him. He brought me to a farm and explained to me the machines involved and what they can do from sowing to harvesting. He spoke to me about farmers who invented their own machines for rice-planting and rice-harvesting – manufactured in Belgium, which grows no rice – and exported to third world countries.

Where is Malaysia in all these? There are colleges and universities in the field of agriculture and agronomy. How far have farmers moved up the knowledge, the technical and technological ladders, so to speak? Are there young Malaysians willing to venture into agriculture? Are these the ones trained in agriculture, agronomy, veterinary science…? 

Has there been a generational change in the farming community? What is new in the agricultural industry in Malaysia? Still at palm oil? I know nuts about agriculture in Malaysia, and I am ready to learn more. I should have had a university education in agriculture rather than in the social sciences, which does not touch the concrete and the tangible as much as agriculture, which concerns people’s lives. 

Paul Lim is retired in a rural village in southern Belgium but wakes up to write when he reads interesting articles like the one by Ch’ng. He specialised in Europe’s relations with Asia, including Malaysia, when working in Brussels. He also taught in Malaysian universities

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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loyal malaysian
loyal malaysian
10 Nov 2020 5.04pm

Thank you, Paul Lim for this informative piece on cash crops.
The emphasis on cash crops for export in Malaysia is still the policy of the day.
There is no road map for food self-sufficiency in our country.
Yes, it looks like we are stuck in the past as far as agriculture is concerned…

Gursharan Singh
Gursharan Singh
10 Nov 2020 10.54am

In any country first priority should be food security and only when this is achieved should one go in to cash crops for export. Priority for cash crops over food supplies may result in gains made from cash crops may be spent to pay for food imports with nett result of possible financial losses.

Dependency of imported food may also result in loss of independence to make policiest as food exporting countries can influence policies and possible civil unrest if prices were to increase substantially beyond the means of ordinary citizens.

In Malaysia water resources may have been badly managed as evidenced by periodical water disruptions due to pollution of water resources & waste.

Bless all.

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