Commentary Lifestyle

It’s 2018 and we still have to import rice  

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Zaidi Azmi
Written by Zaidi Azmi

July 29, 2018

A Youth’s Take – A column by Zaidi Azmi

IN all of Malaysia’s long history, not once has the country farmed enough rice to feed its ever-increasing population and this makes it one of two rice-producing countries – the other being the Philippines – in the region that has been unable to do so despite its centuries-long agrarian roots.

Our self-sufficiency level (SSL) for rice stands at 72 per cent and despite the figure being the highest in history, it is still, regardless how some politicians try to downplay it, not okay.

SSL is a concept used to measure a country’s ability to meet consumption needs (particularly for staple food crops) from its own production rather than by buying or importing.

Now back to how our rice SSL is not okay.

It is so in the sense that the country’s sole rice importer Bernas, which is also tasked by the government to ensure sufficient rice supply and farmers’ welfare, still has to spend billions to import rice.

For example in 2016, RM1.6 billion worth of imported rice was bought to supplement the then-30 per cent rice SLL gap. If we had been self-sufficient, Bernas could have used the money to invest in the growth of our rice industry, nstead, which was also one of its job-scope.

To the unfamiliar, Bernas or PadiBeras Nasional Bhd, is the country’s key partner in the paddy and rice industry. It used be called the National Paddy Rice Agency before it was corporatised in 1996.

While a number of measures have been done to bolster the country’s agricultural sector, talk over lack of seriousness to bolster the rice-farming industry is still rife among academicians and the more learned farmers.

The theory of comparative advantage has always been cited by those who were against the idea of ‘investing more’ in the industry, arguing that it is cheaper to import rather than to cultivate rice.

A latest case in point was Rembau Member of Parliament, Khairy Jamaluddin’s objection, at the Dewan Rakyat sitting last Thursday, over the government’s plan to open new rice granaries in Pekan, Rompin, Batang Lupar and Kota Belud.

But is this the right way to go about it? Must we limit our investment in rice-farming agendas just because some of us think that the cost of doing so is too hefty?

The director of Universiti Putra Malaysia’s Institute of Tropical Agriculture and Food Security, Professor Dr. Mohd Rafii Yusop, does not think so.

Rafii’s argued that achieving 100 per cent rice SSL is something that the government must strive for, as exporting countries will only sell their rice only when they have surplus.

“That is why during the El Nino in 1998, major exporters such as Thailand, and Vietnam refused to sell their rice to Malaysia as they barely have enough supply to feed their people…and so were us,” said Rafii.

The latest rice-related crisis was the 2007-2008 dramatic surge of global rice price, which at first swelled to 149 per cent due to India and Vietnam’s export restrictions.

It was then exacerbated by panic buying of major rice importing countries such as the Phillipines which had inevitably worsened the shortage causing the price of the grain’s more-sought-after varieties to balloon by 200 per cent.

While Malaysia has a significantly smaller harvest area as compared to other rice-producing countries in the region, Rafii pointed out that the country actually has the physical capability to be fully self-sufficient.

“What we lack the most is the proper infrastructure and manpower to fully utilise our approximately 300,000hectares (ha) of rice field paddy area including those outside of our granaries,” Rafii explained.

His contention does hold water as half of the 71 per cent of our rice SSL comes from the 100,685ha of rice granary that is being managed by the Muda Agricultural Development Authority (Mada) in Kedah.

“If every 100,000ha of the remaining 200,000ha can produce the same amount of rice produced by the Mada’s granary, the country would have already secured 106 per cent rice SSL,” said a retired high-ranking Mada official.

The math is simple but the doing isn’t as those familiar with the industry would know that –aside from those under Mada’s care– most paddy farmers achieve low productivity that is below the national average of 3.8 tonnes per ha.

Against such a backdrop, it is anybody’s guess whether the recently-elected government should start investing more into our rice-farming industry or simply stick to the usual importing practices.

But if there is one thing that the newly-minted office bearers in our Agricultural and Agro-based Industry Ministry should bear in mind is that only seven per cent of global rice production are traded.

Imagine how bad of a food crisis the country would be in should anything untoward was to happen to the scarcely available supply if we continue to import rice to be ‘self-sufficient’.

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About the author

Zaidi Azmi

Zaidi Azmi

If Zaidi Azmi isn’t busy finding his way in the city, this 26-year-old northern kampung boy can be found struggling to make sense of the Malaysian political scene. Zaidi can be reached at [email protected]