MAY 25 — The sphere of national food security is an invaluable pillar of the overall national development strategy via its reciprocal link to other spheres of socio-economy.
Effective national food security strategy leads to greater food availability and affordability, lowers food expenditure as a share of the overall household spending, and leaves a larger proportion of the national income available to be spent elsewhere. This has far-reaching implications such as increased aggregate demand for other industrial goods and services, soaring national GDP, increased political stability and overall techno-socio-economic progress and wellbeing of the nation.
In its turn, the ability to thrive in a techno-socio-economic reality of the current industrial revolution provides new tools to make national food security strategy even more effective and efficient.
A global crisis such as Covid-19 outbreak has shown Malaysia’s vulnerability in food security. More challenges - be it the next outbreak, geopolitical crises or climate change - are expected in the future, so, we have to embark on a trajectory that would allow resiliency in our ability to feed ourselves.
Limitations on agrofood availability and the corresponding self-sufficiency levels (SSL) reflects limitations of current capabilities (in addition to supply and demand), and this is where agronomy is being revolutionised through 4IR technologies.
We already know that one unique feature of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is its incredible equalizing power—the effectiveness, efficiency, and self-sufficiency can now be achieved at any level, at any scale, across the industries. And the agriculture industry is among the sectors poised to benefit the most from 4IR in the years to come.
Being empowered with 4IR tech countries can now feed their people better than ever while reducing pressure on resources. Some agri-tech features have already become relatively common place to us, while some may still look like a science fiction—for example, swarm robots planting seeds or inspecting produce.
The entire agriculture sector is being transformed by 4IR tech to the extent that it will soon be unrecognizable to participants of a generation ago who are used to the scene of long field rows filled with manpower.
4IR is prerequisite and necessary condition for food security. That is why, it is not surprising to see among those leading the Global Food Security Index (GFSI), countries like Finland, Ireland, The Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Japan, Singapore and South Korea. These countries have long pledged technology to serve their societies in an all-encompassing way under the umbrella of "Society 5.0". This, of course, includes such an essential aspect of human existence as the ability to put food on our tables.
Closer analysis of the leading countries in Global Food Security Index (GFSI) reveals that they all focus serious efforts on boosting agri-food technology. All as one place hi-tech farming, precision engineering and circular economy principles as the cornerstone of their national food security strategies.
Other common trends among these countries include the following: 1. Placing food security at the highest priority level by the state administration in the form of explicit national food security strategy and dedicated ministries or agencies.
2. Spear-heading national policies towards food self-sufficiency.
3. Heavy investment in Agri-tech research and development.
4. Particular focus on small farmers and local agri-techpreneurs via innovative financing, incentive schemes, and connecting them into extensive networks and e-commerce channels, thus allowing these small players to collectively bring their produce to the local market to be price-competitive. This addresses the middle-men issues.
5. Successful countries build entire vibrant and healthy ecosystems around their agricultural sector infused with tech, including producers, financiers, policymakers, educators, and even consumers.
6. Irrespective of land and other natural resources size and availability, these countries venture into the area of vertical complete control environment farming.
7. They are preparing local agri-tech specialists at scale.
8. They also deploy various strategies to encourage youth to relocate to rural areas and develop rural regions, turning them into attractive places to reside in. Making Agri “sexy” for the youth.
Let’s look at these areas closely.
Having a solid and clear national food security strategy is probably one of the most and foremost essential conditions to have all other food security elements stack up well together.
Realising food security as a national security issue, and not just “another policy” to be carried out, countries that are highly ranked in the Global Food Security Index such as China, Japan, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia and other top performing countries have a clear awareness and prioritization of food security, reflected in the presence of an explicit national security strategy.
Putting the agenda on a high pedestal results in a “whole-of-government strategy” where there is a concerted effort across all agencies and ministries. There is no unhealthy competition; all actors and players in the food security ecosystem works together. Such concerted effort results in effective policy implementation, creating an entire ecosystem of support including various players such as producers, academia and industry R&D, policy makers and even consumers.
To demonstrate how passionate a government can be about food security let’s look, for example, at our tiniest-land neighbour with stellar food security performance in Asia Pacific Region and worldwide—Singapore.
This country’s “obsession with the food” goes deeper than its famous Chili Crab dish might suggest. The country has an explicit national food security strategy (marked with the highest order of priority by the government) and dedicated government agencies to concert and spearhead serious efforts towards securing the country’s ability to put food on its tables.
Singapore Food Agency (SFA) is the government agency tasked with the oversight of the national food security strategy implementation. This body closely cooperates with other relevant agencies and food ecosystem players to ensure that food security vision is consistently implemented at every level of the society.
For example, it works with Agriculture Productivity Fund to support local farmers in their tech adoption, Singapore Land Agency to identify under-utilised urban spaces that can be converted into indoor farms and even with the Ministry of Education to develop and build CURRICULA in relevant areas. How serious and concordant does that sound? In one of its recent attempts to support local food production Singapore Food Agency brought the industry and public together to create a new “SG Fresh Produce” logo. This campaign was warmly supported by the consumers. Probably government “obsession” with food security and its seriousness is airborne and highly contagious! Locally, the need for a holistic food security policy has been recently embodied in The National Agrofood Policy 2011 – 2030 (NAP 2.0) or Dasar Dasar Agromakanan Negara 2021-2030 (DAN 2.0) and also the National Food Security Policy Action Plan 2021-2025 (Pelan Tindakan Dasar Sekuriti Makanan Negara 2021-2025). Both were recently launched in late October this year (2021).
NAP 2.0 was developed in alignment and support of other national development agenda policies including Vision for Shared Prosperity 2030 (WKB 2030) and Malaysia’s Five Year Plan.
A component that stands out compared to its predecessor policy (NAP 1.0) is the recognition and integration with components of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) through aligning with related sectoral policies such as the National Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) Policy and the Malaysian Digital Economy Blueprint.
Spearheading national policies towards self-sufficiencies is yet another common trend shared by top league food security performing-countries. These countries probably have realised heavy-reliance on imports as a threat to their national security.
Of course, food security is a combination of many factors. For example, the Global Food Security Index framework comprises four critical dimensions: availability, affordability, quality and safety, and natural resources and resilience. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated well that other dimensions such as prices or access to food via multiple foreign sources and favourable import tariffs may not matter as much as self-sufficiency in times of a global crisis.
For example, Japan despite being ranked number 9 in Global Food Security Index (GFSI) 2020 currently imports roughly 60 per cent of its food. However, it is among the Japan’s goals to increase food self-sufficiency rate to 45 per cent in 2030 on a calorie basis.
According to the Singapore Food Agency (SFA), the overall strategy is to diversify food security risk into “three food baskets”—diversified global supplier network (currently more than 170 countries), growing locally and growing overseas. However, the country which has almost no arable land, makes an ambitious goal to increase its local food production from 10 to 30 per cent by 2030.
Notably, Singapore’s immediate reaction to the Covid-19 crisis was the decision to grow even faster in the following 6—24 months. This threefold ambitious increase is planned to be achieved through heavy investment in agri-tech, agri-tech infrastructure, research and development.
This heavy investment in agri-tech research and development is another common approach among the global food security leading countries to boost food production, increase food safety and nutrition and mitigate potential impacts of climate change.
This is an inevitable transformation in the agriculture, animal husbandry, and aquaculture sector given the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the backdrop of growing population, reduced arable land, pollution of waterways, soil nutrient loss, increased public awareness on health and climate change issues.
Malaysia’s NAP 2.0 policy paper also recognises these demographic changes and the shifting of public preferences shaping nutrition trends, and environmental such as issues climate change which will require technology-enabled controlled-environment methods in agronomy and plantation.
NAP 2.0 targets of increasing SSL and nutrition levels through the use of technology and practices enable the agrofood sector to remain competitive, contributing to the country's growth and economic development.
Innovative business and economic models can also improve the well-being of the people as well as ensuring environmental sustainability, aligning the policy with the principles of the Sustainable Development Agenda 2030 (SDG 2030).
Let’s look at some examples by other countries that have embarked on serious levels of agri-tech development.
We can observe China embarking on nationwide technology upgrade across the agricultural sector for the purpose of achieving a higher level of self-reliance.
On the technological front, Japan is leading the way with the use of robotics, sensors, big-data simulations, microbes and genomics. Japan has already been a pioneer in the development of sensors, actuators and auto-navigation technologies for farming, where astonishing results has been observed. In fact, a single farm in Kyoto has been growing 30,000 heads of lettuce daily, and in Fukushima, a vertical farm in an abandoned semiconductor factory can produce up to 10,000 heads of lettuce per day, amounting to 100 times the productivity – measured per 0.1 square metres of land – of traditional farming methods.
Other examples include Australia, which considers innovation advancement as one of its five pillars for growth identified in the National Farmers' Federation (NFF) 2030 Roadmap, which includes a plan for agriculture to achieve US$100 billion (RM439.5 billion) in output.
New Zealand recognises innovation and investment in agri-tech as an important part of their 10-year strategy for the primary sector.
Singapore’s provides US$144 million for research and innovation efforts in the farming sector, and provides an Express Grant to quickly ramp up food-farm outputs within two years.
Irrespective of land and other natural resources size and availability, the food security leading countries, all as one, venture into the area of vertical, complete control environment farming.
Now, although it’s true that countries with limited land or water resource availability are venturing quicker into farming or aquaculture techniques and technologies that maximize output from minimal space, nations also realize how a growing population can outpace food supply, exacerbated with reduced arable land, increased pollution of waterways and water resources, soil nutrient leaching, increased public awareness on health and climate change issues – all of which make technologies such as vertical farming, automated and controlled environment farming to be very relevant, irrespective of land and other natural resources size and availability.
From the long-term perspective, it’s crucial to embark on these technologies now.
It is interesting to observe how top food security performing countries unanimously focus on supporting their small farm holders who are just like SMEs are the majority and the backbone of not only national food security but overall national prosperity and wellbeing.
Rather than amalgamating smallholders into big estates, the opposite is required— encourage, support and enable them to become independent agri-producers. For, if we absorb their pieces of land into bigger estates, we promote wealth concentration in the hands of few. While empowering a large enough number of individual farmers to unlock the gem they have in their hands, we create wealth distribution and economic independence on a national scale.
The belief that smallholder farming cannot be efficient is rather an old conventional way of thinking. The elegant 4IR tech solutions allow efficiency to be achieved at every level, at any scale, in any industry.
A pilot deployment of 4IR agri-tech by a Malaysian government agency in the field digitalisation was highly successful in various agricultural activities such as smart fertigation, smart misting, smart aquaculture, smart poultry, smart irrigation, and smart soil monitoring. The agency also observed how agtech increased the productivity, quality and income of small farmers by over 23 per cent. For example, in Chilli planting, the yield increased by 33 per cent and income by 23 per cent.
A large number of farmers on the national scale enjoying higher incomes and collectively bringing their produce to the market would exert downward pressure on food prices, provided, of course, there is sufficient protection from foreign food suppliers.
The top-performers on food security among our regional peers, such as Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and others, already scrupulously focus on smallholder farmers—encouraging them to embrace agri-tech, easing their financing, and enabling these small players to bring their produce to the national markets collectively.
In doing so, the countries are actually building entire vibrant and healthy ecosystems around their agricultural sector infused with tech, including producers, financiers, policymakers, educators, and even consumers.
We saw an example of such ecosystem approach in the earlier example of Singapore. However, other countries who are serious on their food security are following the suit.
For example, China, in particular, has a strong focus in reshaping its smallholder farming culture with extensive digitalisation. With the help of agri-tech and new business models driven by digital innovation working through the entire agricultural value chain, small farmers can benefit from a huge and supportive ecosystem.
A related example is where Japan’s advance use of sensors generate super-smart Big Data connecting food from the breeding process to farming, distribution, sales, consumption and even recycling. This is a combination of agri-tech and circular economy. The latter has been highlighted under the 12th Malaysia Plan.
The system also helps small players to collectively bring their produce into extensive networks for e commerce and the local market for a more price-competitive proposition.
Food security leaders also prepare local agri-tech specialists at scale. In this effort, as we could see they even go as far as changing school curriculum to excite the future generation about agriculture from the very young age. Malaysia’s DAN 2.0 policy paper has correctly identified the lack of youth involvement as a problem in the sector.
As food security in 4IR has pushed agri-tech as an indispensable tool, its sustainability is hinged on the healthy supply, or a consistent critical mass of talents and home grown agri-techpreneurs and innovators.
We can look at New Zealand with its academy for horticultural robotics. Also, according to a global report, agri-tech and life sciences are highlighted as the leading areas for New Zealand start-ups.
For South Korean school children and students, rural area site visits to learn about agriculture is common practice and part of curriculum as well. In doing so government of South Korea also hopes that students would see how beautiful and fulfilling life can be outside of urban areas and therefore would be naturally attracted to live and work there including in the area of agri-tech.
It also inevitable that such a strategy will require the development and upgrading of existing agricultural sites in rural areas and opening of new ones. It is important to pair the increased output of relevant talents, with such talent and workforce dispersion strategy.
Conclusion We have to learn from history, from other nations, and take stock of the current situation. Other countries are taking crucial steps in its national food security, while Malaysia, achieved a zero score in the food security and access policy indicator under GFSI 2020.
The previous National Agrofood Policy 2011-2020 (NAP 1.0) launched back in had allowed the agrofood sector’s contribution to the Gross Domestic Product Gross (GDP) to grow at a 6.8 per cent annual growth rate since the implementation in 2011.
However, the resulting increase in exports with annual growth rate of 6.4 per cent from RM18.1 billion to RM33.7 billion for the same year is also accompanied by increasing dependency on food imports. According to NAP 2.0 policy document, chicken/duck meat and chicken/duck eggs are the only agrofood commodities that managed to retain SSL level of 100.00 per cent from 2010 to 2020. NAP 2.0 and its action plans must be urgently and seriously implemented.
These figures, and the GFSI score support experts view of food security as not being the government’s focus area and priority, and the absence or insufficient food security strategy. In fact, Malaysia has been receiving a zero score on this measure from the food security experts for years, from 2012 to 2020. This also reflects the experts’ view of the Malaysian government's ability to be held responsible and accountable for whether it has invested in and taking a coordinated approach to achieving food security.
As mentioned before, growing global population, reduced arable land, pollution of waterways and water resources, soil nutrient loss, increased public awareness on health, climate change issues, and even future pandemics and global crises can and will test a nation’s ability to feed its own people.
Malaysia scored very weak in the ocean, rivers, and lakes sub indicator, which means that its waters and water resources are significantly at risk, jeopardising Malaysia’s ability to improve its self sufficiency in food security.
Water resource security issues due to increasing pollution are exacerbated by growing demand due to population growth, economic activities, and climate-change related changes in water supply. In fact, GFSI views Malaysia as having absolutely no safety net against climate-change related adaptation measures for food safety.
Thus, it is past time to realise the need for a whole-of-government approach and holistic strategy, towards food security as a high-priority of national security. Malaysia’s recently launched Dasar Agromakanan Negara (DAN 2.0) or the National Agrofood Policy 2021 – 2030 (NAP 2.0) appears to have recognised these issues and is looking like a step in the right direction.
NAP 2.0 outlined policy thrusts such as empowering modernisation through smart agriculture and increased research activities, development, commercialisation and innovation, strengthening the agrofood product value chain for domestic and international markets, talent and skilled workforce development, emphasis on sustainable agricultural practices and business ecosystem facilitation including land use, finance, infrastructure, investment and governance.
Of course, a policy is only as good as the implementation. Luckily, as far the effectiveness of 4IR technologies, we have data and experience beyond concepts and theories to show that it really works on the ground.
Results from local pilot projects have showcased the viability of digital technologies and automation in agriculture. However, there is room for even more technological improvement. We can go beyond 4IR’s version of Agri-tech, and into “Agtech” which is also envisioned under Malaysia 5.0, inspired after Japan’s Society 5.0.
Malaysia 5.0 envisions for a society deeply integrated with technology, governed by inclusive and equitable “eco-vironmental” principles and practices. Its 3 main pillars include the following: 1. Instill a new core identity philosophy that transcends individual societal divides and upholds the value of shared prosperity.
2. Adopt, value add, and produce digital transformation and 4IR technologies centered around solving eco-vironmental problems.
3. Produce well-rounded citizens who are well-positioned and empowered to face, navigate, and thrive 4IR.
Under the “Unity Alliance” framework envisioned under Malaysia 5.0, such a national food security strategy will include the strong collaboration with all players and stakeholders in the ecosystem.
In the near future, innovative fintech and trading platform such as blockchain-based peer-to-peer (p2p) market platform may be considered to support small farmers by minimising the role of the middle-man (if not cut out entirely) and ensure best prices for the consumers, and better margins for the farmers.
Similar technologies should be applied to other crops in Malaysia, particularly paddy. Despite a major rice consumer, sources indicate that Malaysia is only producing roughly 70 per cent of the total demand internally, while the remaining are imported. The SSL level dropped slightly from 70 per cent in 2018, to 69% in 2019. According to NAP 2.0 policy document, SSL for rice in 2020 was at 63%.
A global crisis such as Covid-19 pandemic has shown Malaysia’s vulnerability in food security when trade activities are halted, depriving Malaysia from its staple food.
If this is reflective of limitations in current capabilities, then technology appears to be the way breach the production ceiling.
According to the department of statistics, the total food imports for 2019 is in excess of RM 51 billion, and jumped to RM 55 billion in 2020. To give an idea on the growth rate, the value was reported to be about RM 43 billion in 2013.
Thus, in addition to transcending the current notion of food security (achieved via imports supplementation) to actual self-sufficiency (at least for staple foods, major livestocks and aquaculture; for obvious national security reasons). On this note, NAP 2.0 aligns exactly to this notion as it focuses specifically on four sub-sectors namely paddy and rice, fruits and vegetables, livestock as well as fisheries and aquaculture.
The success of the policy will be dependent on the successful implementation of its 21 strategies and 77 action plans, putting heavy responsibilities onto the shoulders of various departments and agencies until 2030.
We only have less than a decade, and in order to stay on track, Malaysia have to ensure the adoption the IOOI model (Input, Output, Outcome, and Impact), enforce fiscal oversight, practice radical transparency in policy implementations, and put the right people in the right places.
There is existing and sizeable captive market with an upward trend to be capitalised on, and technological advancement is the inevitable way forward. The time to act on this is now, to ensure food safety, food security and food sovereignty.
*This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.