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Opinion

Monday, 20 March 2017 | MYT 12:00 AM

Beefing up our food security

WHY is it that every time there is a festival, there is a sudden surge in the demand for food? It is little different whether it is Hari Raya, Chinese New Year or Deepavali.

The spike in demand will take place nonetheless. The authority would then start monitoring the prices of food and make sure there is no unwarranted price hike as a result of hoarding or other forms of exploitation by retailers. Chicken, being a favourite food item among Malaysians, is often closely monitored.

The retailing of chicken will always be a subject of much complaint by consumers during such festive occassions, especially on the supply side. Reports of shortages in the market are not uncommon.

Clearly, food is a major concern for everyone. There have been reports of riots in countries which experience food shortfall.

In India, there was once an acute shortage of cooking oil because the year’s monsoon wreaked havoc on the domestic oilseed crops. The consequence was a nation wide riot blaming the government for the shortages.

That was when India decided to import palm oil in a big way from Malaysia.

After that first taste of palm oil, Indian consumers are now hooked on palm oil. In a way that bout of cooking oil shortage was a blessing for palm oil.

Now, the world has been dealt another blow on food. Countries of Eastern Africa, especially Somalia and South Sudan, are badly affected by a serious case of a drought incited famine. This has taken many lives especially young children.

This explains why food security has become a top agenda of all countries around the world. In Malaysia, the discourse on food security has been on the plate for decades now. Take our staple food rice as an example. We have still not managed to surpass the 70-75% self-sufficiency mark. And this is despite the advances made in rice breeding R&D where new high yielding varieties have been introduced to the farmers.

MARDI has made significant contributions to yield improvements over the years. Recently it has been reported that researchers at UPM have also succeeded in producing new higher yielding rice varieties. But the self-sufficiency level has not changed much. It is still stuck at the 75% level. Analysis by experts differ on the reasons. But most are unanimous on the facts related to poor agronomic management as well as uncontrolled post harvest losses.

Recent developments in rice breeding research promise to change the equation on the nation’s rice self-sufficiency. According to the Ministry of Higher Education, MOHE, which funds literally all the university research in the country, hope is on the way. Researchers at UPM are ready to recommend a new rice variety which more than double the current yield level. Once implemented with the right agronomic support, we will be closer than ever to that self-sufficency level that the nation has long dreamed of. A self–sufficiency level of at least 90% is now more real than ever. Who knows one day we may even be exporting rice!

Apart from rice, the nation has also been overly dependent on imports to meet our demand for beef, lamb and dairy products.

The cost burden to the country has been immense. There have been many attempts to produce our own supply of beef to reduce the import burden.

Many initiatives to expand the country’s livestock industry have only achieved limited success. These include rearing cattle under oil palm as well as some satellite programs for raising livestock. Unfortunately that self sufficiency target remains elusive.

But we must not lose hope. We need to learn from the mistakes made in the past.

A recent announcement by the government to venture into the dairy sector should be applauded. Over the years, our consumption of dairy products has sharply risen.

As consumers improve their purchasing power, the preference for beef and dairy products rises. But we need to have the right business model to make the new venture into the dairy industry a success. It is not insurmountable.

DR AHMAD IBRAHIM

Fellow Academy of Sciences Malaysia