As subsidies weigh, EAC eyes ways to boost rice farmers’ efficiency

Dr Mahathir said despite subsidies of nearly RM2 billion annually, rice farmers remain inefficient and poor due to antiquated farming methods. — Reuters pic
Dr Mahathir said despite subsidies of nearly RM2 billion annually, rice farmers remain inefficient and poor due to antiquated farming methods. — Reuters pic

PUTRAJAYA, June 11 — Poverty among the country’s 200,000 paddy farmers was a priority in the Economic Action Council’s third-ever meeting here today, with the government pledging to find ways to raise their standard of living.

Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the chairman of the EAC, said close to RM2 billion was spent annually on subsidies to aid rice growers, but to little effect, as most remain inefficient and poor due to antiquated farming methods that do not fully utilise their land.

“For example, we found that each land can produce up to eight tonnes but they only produce four tonnes,” he told a press conference here.

The Pakatan Harapan (PH) government pledged to improve the lives of farmers as part of the coalition's effort to beef up food security, amid mounting concerns over the rising cost of food imports.

Rice farmers, who are overwhelmingly of Bumiputera ethnicity, form a key voter base for both the government and Opposition.

In April, the Khazanah Research Institute (KRI) released a study that found the country’s rice industry to be severely deficient despite having received billions in federal subsidies, incentives and other forms of assistance.

The state-linked think tank in its report titled “Status of Paddy and Rice Industry” found the rice trade is beset with structural weaknesses, even if production has increased over the last 30 years to allow Malaysia to meet its safe self-sufficiency target of 60 to 70 per cent.

If left unaddressed, KRI said any supply shock risk hurting the most vulnerable groups such as the poor, rural residents or migrant workers, the most dependent on rice as a food source.

The study also noted the poor living conditions of small holding paddy farmers, the country's largest rice producers. KRI said the industry must reform if it is to address the quagmire belying the sector.

Dr Mahathir said today the government is trying to identify weaknesses and find solutions. The priority, he went on, would be to increase productivity.

“We must identify areas of weaknesses to address but at the same time make sure it does not affect consumers,” he said.

While the prime minister indicated that the production method is a key problem, he did not elaborate on how his administration plans to address this.

Putrajaya had recently stepped up its campaign to encourage farmers to diversify their revenue sources by planting several types of cash crops, instead of just rice or palm oil.

The prime minister said income diversification could be the best immediate solution to improve farmers' income. It is unclear if the government intends to subsidise the crops.

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