This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on October 8, 2018 - October 14, 2018
Before the 1970s, agriculture was the basis of Malaysia’s economic growth. While it remains an important sector, it is struggling to meet the country’s consumption demands, says Dr Abdul Shukor Juraimi, dean of Universiti Putra Malaysia’s (UPM) faculty of agriculture.
“In Malaysia, there are two types of agriculture — plantation and food production. On the plantation side, we are doing very well. In fact, the value of our palm oil exports is about RM70 billion a year,” says Abdul Shukor.
“But on the food production side, we are way behind our neighbouring countries. For example, we only produce 71% of the rice we need to be self-sufficient. We also lack fruit (66%), vegetables (40%) and ruminants (29%).
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.
“Growing food requires a lot of manpower as the turnover rate is high. Farmers need to use a lot of fertilisers and pesticides. As most of these products are imported, they are getting increasingly expensive due to the weak ringgit,” says Abdul Shukor.
Currently, 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, says Abdul Shukor.
“Their income is not big enough to attract more people to agriculture. Only 28% of the country’s population is involved in agriculture and they are, on average, 60 years old,” he adds.
“Over the last decade, a lot of farmers have started to realise that plantations are a lot easier to maintain than food crops and palm oil prices are relatively stable. So, they quit planting food crops and start planting oil palm. Some of them even sold their agricultural land. It is sad to see the padi fields in Kedah being converted into housing and industrial areas.”
Pests and diseases are common and persistent problems that hinder food production. Abdul Shukor says local farmers have to deal with blast disease (rice), moko disease (banana) and fusarium disease (tomato), among others.
At one time, he recalls, 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. In fact, farmers stopped growing them entirely.
“These are some of the issues reducing our food production and making it difficult for us to meet the demand of the population. Of course, the growing population is also one of the factors,” says Abdul Shukor.
“In 2003, our population was only 23 million. Now, it is 31 million. The government is doing its best to maintain the percentage of production, but it is harder — 70% back then is not the same as 70% today.”
Facilitating transfer of knowledge
To help Malaysian farmers produce better yields, UPM works with many local organisations and agencies to facilitate the transfer of knowledge. However, it lacks manpower. “The technologies are available, but we do not have enough extension officers to help disseminate them and make sure that the farmers thoroughly understand what they need to do,” says Abdul Shukor.
He adds that there have been many cases where the outcome of the knowledge transfer did not turn out as planned. Once, a private company sold and distributed hybrid rice seeds together with its herbicide in a package as weeds are the biggest problem in padi fields. The farmers were told that they would enjoy higher yields by growing the hybrid rice and using the herbicide. But they needed to follow a restriction — they could only grow the rice and use the herbicide for two harvests. Then, they would need to switch to normal rice and herbicides for the next two harvests. The process was necessary to prevent the weeds from developing resistance to the herbicide.
“Many farmers did not bother about the restriction because they were tempted by the higher yield. They were only supposed to use the herbicide for two harvests, but they used it for up to eight harvests,” says Abdul Shukor.
“So, when the weeds developed resistance and could no longer be killed, it was the company that suffered the backlash. The farmers blamed the company instead of themselves.
“Our farmers are not like those in Europe or the US, who are mostly university graduates who can easily absorb new technologies. It can be challenging to get our farmers to understand the consequences of their actions. That is why we are trying our hardest to encourage the younger generation to be involved in agriculture and get themselves educated to become modern farmers.”
During semester breaks or holidays, the university organises workshops for local farmers with the help of agencies such as the Muda Agricultural Development Authority and Kemubu Agricultural Development Authority. Abdul Shukor says the workshops, which teach basic and advanced agricultural techniques, are held nationwide, including in orang asli settlements.
“For example, we recently got our students to teach these farmers new crop management practices such as fertigation, where soil amendments, fertilisers and other water-soluble products are injected into an irrigation system,” he adds.
“Instead of planting them in the soil, the seeds — chilies, tomatoes or even ladies’ fingers — are planted in polybags. These polybags are then connected to pipes that automatically drip water and the other products together. It is very effective, inexpensive and saves a lot of manpower.”
UPM is doing a lot of translational research programmes, where research findings are translated into practice for meaningful outcomes. One successful example of the programme is the PadiU Putra — a rice variety that is resistant to blast disease. The new rice variety increases produce to 10 tonnes per hectare compared with seven tonnes previously.
“It is one of our biggest achievements and we are very proud of it. We can finally see the results of the research we have conducted for many years. The research itself took five years to complete while the translational research programme was two years,” says Abdul Shukor.
“Of course, the research does not end there. We will continue to monitor future developments. The disease can be very clever. In fact, it can actually change its structure to find a way to attack the variety.
“We will probably need to develop a new variety before that happens. So, we may end up with many versions of it. In fact, there are 11 versions of the Clearfield rice variety in the US — the result of many research outcomes.”
There are also numerous R&D initiatives undertaken by the private sector. However, most of them are for oil palm, not food crops. Abdul Shukor says there needs to be a lot more involvement from the private sector to help with the R&D for food crops.
“We cannot rely on the government because funds are limited. If we can get private companies to increase their investment in food crop R&D, then it will definitely spike food production and help eliminate the problems we have with food security,” he adds.
Opportunities and gaps
While the agriculture sector currently faces many problems, there are also opportunities. The export demand for local fruit has risen over the years, especially durians and coconuts, says Abdul Shukor. For instance, the Chinese prefer Malaysian durians to those of other countries because their flesh is softer and more aromatic.
Coconuts became popular when those in the West realised that coconut oil had more health benefits than other oils, he says. “Now, the demand is very high. We did our calculations — the Matag variety can produce 30,000 to 32,000 nuts per hectare a year. If multiplied by the net farm price of about RM2 per nut, farmers can generate about RM60,000 per year or RM5,000 a month, which is higher than what they can generate with oil palm (about RM3,000 per month).”
Malaysia is also known for its mangoes, especially the Harumanis and Chok Anan varieties. Although mango farms are tougher to maintain than durian and coconut farms, as the fruit can be easily attacked by pests, it is still a good market with large demand, says Abdul Shukor.
To attract bright and young farmers, UPM’s agriculture faculty hosts an incubator programme called Inkubasi Usahawantani (Agropreneur Incubation) every year. Abdul Shukor says the faculty aims to get 20% of its graduates to join the programme each year, but it is open to graduates of all fields. Previous participants included those with engineering, social science and education degrees.
There are many loans available to those interested in becoming farmers, especially from Agrobank and the National Entrepreneurial Group Economic Fund (Tekun Nasional), says Abdul Shukor. “However, it is not just a matter of knocking on their doors and asking for money. They need to see that the applicants have what it takes. So, the applicants should have already started planting something before applying.”
Unlike its neighbouring countries, Malaysia has an imbalance of upstream (raw materials for production) and downstream (end products to be distributed) products. That is why the country needs more agropreneurs, he says.
“Countries like Thailand and Taiwan have so many downstream products, such as dried and canned food. Most of our downstream products are imported. I think the Department of Agriculture and the Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority have done a lot to help increase the number of downstream products. But so far, we are still heavily reliant on imports,” says Abdul Shukor.
He thinks Malaysians are perhaps not keen to explore agriculture due to the problem of limited land space. So, there needs to be a push for systematic planting techniques that do not require a lot of space such as vertical farming. However, as the initial cost of such projects is quite high, private-sector investors are needed.
“The end goal for us is to promote to people living in high-rise buildings to plant food crops, a bit here and there, for their everyday use. In the UK, this is very common. Almost every kitchen has a small herb garden. If every household does this, we will no longer have to import a lot of vegetables,” says Abdul Shukor.
“Actually, local vegetables are easy to plant because most of them grow very fast. It takes less than a month to plant and harvest bayam (spinach) and kangkung (water spinach). Bird’s eye chili is also quite easy to plant and maintain.”
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