Chicken shortages. Beef shortages. Soaring vegetable and local fruit prices.
These are the endless news reports we face now and then. Since the arrival of the Covid pandemic, the situation has only got worse.
Food shortages and the ever-increasing prices are often swept under the carpet with excuses from politicians. Their excuses range from food chain disruptions, global supply trends, supply-demand forces, the rising cost of imported fertilisers and grain supplies, and an inadequate supply of migrant workers. This is the usual litany of justifications for a situation that leaves millions of people in the lurch.
If we cannot even meet our own food supply and security needs in peacetime, what will happen in times of escalating geopolitical strife or war?
We may be too caught up in the race politics and religious divisiveness – peddled to the hilt in the ongoing power struggle since the Sheraton Move – that we remain blind to the nation’s pressing food security needs.
On 30 January 2021, the senior minister for international trade and industry proudly announced a “sustained (trade) surplus trend for 23 consecutive years since 1998”.
So why are working-class people paying high prices for food and facing perennial shortages?
Despite Malaysia being the world’s second largest palm oil producer and exporter after Indonesia and our palm oil production accounting for 26% of world production and 34% of world exports in 2020, people are groaning about the rising cost of food.
Total exports earned RM1.2 trillion for the nation in 2021. Yet, people here are unable to see meaningful subsidisation for imported food items.
Note, palm oil only earned us 5.2% of the RM1.2 trillion. Over 80% of earnings came from non-agro-based products. (See the Matrade chart below.)
Agriculture and Food Industries Minister Ronald Kiandee assured the people his ministry had devised strategies to ensure a stable food supply and reduce the dependency on imports.
But the minister did not explain why the agriculture sector – an economic pillar of the nation after independence, contributing 28.8% of gross domestic product in 1970 – has slumped to just 7.4% of GDP. This is low compared to our neighbours Indonesia (13.7%) and Thailand (8.6%).
The Malaysian Department of Statistics, in its website post on 26 August 2021, may seem most reassuring about the state of our crops, livestock and fisheries sectors.
But when the middle class and low-income households are struggling to make put nutritious food on the table, we have to ask honest, painful questions.
If the pandemic is cited as the root cause for our eroding self-sufficiency, are we to believe that before Covid, everything was smooth sailing with food prices and the supply-demand situation?
The Department of Statistics tries to explain away the struggling performance of the agricultural sector. It points to the “higher cost in raw materials especially for the commodities related to food products”. It says that over the last decades, the index of foodstuff and feed stocks rose 24.4%. “Most feeding stuff for animal was imported mainly from Argentina, while for fertilisers, were from Canada and China.”
What happened to all our pre-independence and immediate post-independence capabilities and reliance on local farming, fisheries and livestock breeding that thrived without imports of manufactured fertilisers and feeds?
Remember, we came out of World War Two eating pucuk ubi rebus (boiled tapioca shoots) and ikan sepat bakar (grilled fish) while rice was a luxury many could not afford. Where are we today?
A recent shortage of French fries owing to a fast-food chain facing a serious disruption of its potato supply set tongues wagging among the youth.
What will we do when the average person can have chicken, meat, fish, fresh vegetables and fruit only sparingly?
Is our penchant for quick profits and fat earnings from taxation to be blamed for the neglect of local food security over the past four decades?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s privatisation agenda drove the private sector at a maddening pace, creating pockets of billionaires and an unknown number of millionaires.
But large segments of the population have been drowning in the systemic snare of the middleman.
In the 1970s, the government had the noble idea of offering agricultural science as a subject in schools. It even set up an agricultural university to produce graduates in agricultural science in a bid to boost self-sufficiency in food and livestock production.
But we have apparently surrendered to the oligarchs operating mega-plantations who have taken over from the timber barons who depleted our lands.
The government’s reassurance that “efforts to rejuvenate the food-based agriculture sector through technological adoption will be able to boost agricultural production as well as addressing the unemployment issues” rings hollow.
The question is why did we not tackle this problem in the past?
The number of unemployed persons remains high at 694,400 in November 2021 (Department of Statistics, Malaysia).
We have to hold our policymakers and political leaders accountable in the face of such unemployment, mismatched skills, export orientation at the expense of home-grown food security, and the rising demand for cheap foreign labour.
Explanations and promises will not erase the looming food security crisis that we face. Many have talked about it. Responsible media editorials have highlighted the issues repeatedly. Netizens have expressed their concern.
But as the days roll by, ordinary people are finding it increasingly difficult to put fresh, nutritious meals on the table.
Farmers and breeders are finding the ever-changing policies of little help.
Ask those from average households if they find food prices affordable. Ask them if they can afford to eat choice farm produce and have meat, fish and chicken as frequently as they desire. From their answers, we might be able to glean the potential of a food security crisis.
Mind you, we are not living in times of global war. The world is not embroiled in a direct confrontation between global powers.
But the pandemic was enough to reveal how vulnerable Malaysia is, in terms of food security, affordability and dependency.
If we do not think the country’s looming food security crisis needs critical appraisal, then we must be prepared to face the consequences of our neglect.