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Redesign the food system to boost food security

The circular economy could transform the agri-food industry and make it more resilient, inclusive and sustainable

Food security: A visitor to Balik Pulau, Penang soaks in the glorious vista of a paddy field - EVELYN TANG/ALIRAN

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By Salini Devi Rajendran

Food is a sensitive commodity, essential for human survival.

Food security for people globally means having sufficient affordable, nutritious and reliable food supplies to satisfy their daily needs.

Today, food security has emerged as a pressing national and global concern that calls for solutions. Local food systems are now finding it difficult to provide sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet people’s food consumption patterns and dietary needs for a healthy lifestyle.

Food insecurity was already on the rise before Covid. The pandemic provided an additional threat to food systems, with rising food inflation and supply chain disruptions.

The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on many small-scale food producers. It has also had a negative impact on international trade and globalisation and the overall global food ecosystem.

A key factor is that fertiliser prices rose dramatically last year. This resulted in an increase in the price of Malaysia’s primary commodity, palm oil.

Lower supplies from producer countries – due to, for instance, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict – have contributed to the rise in fertiliser prices in Malaysia and have recently become a pressing issue.

Increases in the costs of raw materials such as crude oil and natural gas resulting in higher transportation costs, and exchange rate fluctuations also contributed to the higher fertiliser prices. Malaysia relies heavily on fertiliser imports from China, the US, Indonesia, Canada and Russia.

Disruptions in the supply chain of imports from neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Indonesia also contributed to food price increases.

Department of Statistics figures show that Malaysia continues to rely on food imports. The import dependency ratios confirm Malaysia’s reliance on imports of mutton, mango, ginger and beef to meet local consumption.

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About 70% of imported mutton came from Australia, while mango and beef came primarily from Thailand, Indonesia and India. Malaysia’s total food imports reached RM55.5bn in 2020, against RM33.8bn in exports.

As for the self-sufficiency ratio, the figure for chicken and duck eggs, at 113.5%, is the only item in the livestock category that exceeded 100% in 2020 (DoS, 2021). This means that Malaysia can sustain this food product.

However, as demonstrated by the recent chicken supply shortage, even a high level of self-sufficiency does not guarantee food availability.

On top of that, Malaysia recently experienced a shortage of eggs – caused by poultry farms cutting back on production due to the rising cost of maize and soya bean meal, the two key ingredients in chicken feed.

A combination of these factors has resulted in Malaysia continuing to bear a double burden of food insecurity and reliance on imports to meet its consumers’ needs and demands.

A high reliance on imported agricultural inputs has affected the stability of food supply and food prices. In fact, high food prices have triggered a global crisis, pushing millions more into extreme poverty and worsening hunger and malnutrition.

This urgent issue requires serious attention and concrete policy measures to resolve inequalities and problems in our current food system that prevent adequate food security for all.

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. It can also be redesigned to promote human health and lower overall societal costs.

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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 practise farming techniques such as inter-cropping, permaculture and rotational grazing.

Farmers should be encouraged to use organic fertilisers to reduce their reliance on high-priced chemical fertilisers. This would also improve and protect the local ecosystem’s overall quality while also promoting good human health.              

Green technology or eco-innovations in agriculture are 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 challenging and are not motivated to invest more money and resources to expand their farming sites and boost their agricultural productivity.

So, 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 the application of agricultural technologies that may aid in boosting 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 the four B’s – 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.

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For the future, the new government should prioritise the food economy, as production growth presently is smaller than demand growth. Although subsidies and incentives from the government may provide short-term solutions, the country needs to look at long-term strategies to spearhead and speed up the transformation of the agri-food industry. Hence, the new government should play a key role in building an ecosystem to overcome food insecurity in the nation.

Instead of 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, improved farm management, green agriculture technology and effective food networks may boost the expansion of local agri-food value chains and accelerate agri-food sectors into a competitive and sustainable industry, in line with the government’s “shared prosperity” vision.

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 a holistic transformation of food systems.

Dr Salini Devi Rajendran is a senior lecturer in the School of Food Studies and Gastronomy at Taylor’s University

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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Paul Lim
Paul Lim
18 Dec 2022 5.56pm

The notion of the Circular economy it seems has reached Malaysia at least in the words of this Academic Author. At large??? This talk of food security, self-relance is not new. One sector that it needs moving away from is the plantation industry which is basically the agriculture sector on which the Malaysia economy dépends on. Has it a place in the Circular economy?

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