KUALA LUMPUR, July 27 — The Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industries (MAFI) has given its assurance that Malaysia’s rice supply is still stable and there is enough to meet the needs of the people despite the various threats faced by its padi and rice industry, including the effects of climate change.
The fact that Malaysia did not experience any rice supply disruption even in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic is a good case in point, although the same cannot be said for some other countries that have often been beset with food shortages.
Not only is the nation’s staple food easily available, its prices are also among the lowest in the Asean region. In Malaysia, ordinary white rice is priced at RM2.60 per kilogramme compared to RM8.52 for similar grade rice in Singapore, Brunei (RM5.60), Indonesia (RM4.10), Laos (RM4), Vietnam (RM3.34), Philippines (RM3.33), Cambodia (RM3.20) and Thailand (RM2.70).
National rice stockpile
Currently, Malaysia’s padi and rice output meets 70 per cent of the nation’s requirements.
According to Mafi Padi Industry Development Division director-general Azman Mahmood, the government has created rice stockpiles throughout the nation to secure supply should any unforeseen event cause a food crisis.
Mafi and Padiberas Nasional Bhd (Bernas) intend to increase the nation’s total rice stockpile from 150,000 metric tonnes to 290,000 metric tonnes by 2023.
“The increase in stockpile doesn’t involve any financial allocation from the ministry. Currently, our buffer stock stands at 88.52 per cent or 221,311 metric tonnes. We hope to raise it to a total of 250,000 metric tonnes by the end of 2022.
“Efforts to increase the stockpile will be implemented until we achieve the target we have set, without taking into account external factors such as the pandemic, climate change and so on,” he told Bernama.
The management of the national rice stockpile is fully supervised by Bernas as it is among the key social obligation clauses outlined in the company’s concession agreement with the government. Last year, the concession agreement was renewed for another 10 years until 2031.
Under the clause pertaining to the rice stockpile, Bernas must preserve, manage, maintain and retain the rice stockpile at the current rate set by the government.
Azman said the nation’s rice trading stock, meanwhile, stood at between 600,000 and 700,000 metric tonnes at any one time.
“This amount includes rice stocks held by wholesalers and retailers; padi harvests that have not been processed into rice; imported rice that has yet to be unloaded from ships; and others.
“If the total stockpile is taken into account, the nation has sufficient stock to meet the needs of the people without imported rice for four to five months,” he explained.
Attain SSL target
Various initiatives have been implemented to ensure sufficient rice supply, among them being encouraging youths to venture into agriculture and replace the aging padi farmers, encouraging stakeholders to make use of Internet of Things and Industrial Revolution 4.0 products, and doubling research and development efforts to unearth new disease-resistant seeds.
The ministry has also introduced several programmes to reduce the impact of various global factors currently affecting the industry. According to Azman, this year alone pesticide subsidies have been increased to RM62 million to absorb the higher costs of agricultural inputs, the prices of which have gone up significantly globally.
“We’ve also introduced an agricultural insurance scheme to deal with rice crops often hit by natural disasters and also introduced organic fertilisers to treat soil as well as reduce the use of chemical fertilisers,” he said.
He said all these programmes are aimed at helping the nation to achieve a rice self-sufficiency level (SSL) of 75 per cent by the end of the 11th Malaysia Plan (2021-2025) and 80 per cent at the end of the National Agrofood Policy 2021-2030.
As Malaysia’s rice production only meets 70 per cent of its needs, Bernas – which is the nation’s sole rice importer – imports up to 800,000 metric tonnes of rice annually from rice-exporting nations such as Vietnam, Thailand, Pakistan and India.
The bulk of the imports comprises white rice, the remaining being speciality rice varieties such as basmati and brown rice.
In this context, even though Malaysia is not facing any threat to its rice supply, it still has to work on increasing domestic production to secure the supply of the nation’s staple food.
Acknowledging this, Azman said the government needs to come up with a drastic move to boost the nation’s rice productivity rate.
“Although the government has been implementing various programmes and given out aid and incentives worth billions of ringgit every year, an analysis done by our ministry found that the productivity of both granary and non-granary areas have failed to be satisfactory,” he said.
Pointing out that the time has come for the private sector to be given the opportunity to play a leading role in the country’s padi and rice industry, he said the approach of utilising private financing capital as much as possible will help to rev up the industry.
“The ministry intends to attract private investors to make the nation’s padi and rice industry more dynamic and competitive,” he said.
Touching on the Smart Large-scale Field programme (Smart SBB), Azman said its target is to increase the national average padi yield to 7.0 metric tonnes a hectare during the 12th Malaysian Plan (2026-2030) period, compared to the current average yield of 3.5 to 4.3 metric tonnes a hectare.
“In the long term, the programme targets to develop a total of 150,000 hectares of padi fields per season or 300,000 hectares a year. With the encouraging response from industry players and the incomes of the farmers involved increasing by up to 180 per cent, the ministry is confident of meeting its SSL target of 75 per cent by the end of 2025,” he said.
To date, the Smart SBB pilot project has succeeded in attracting 24 companies, comprising government-linked and private companies, which have signed memoranda of understanding with Mafi to cultivate padi.
In the near future, the ministry, through Agrobank, will also introduce the first-of-its-kind agrofood insurance scheme for the padi sector. Under the scheme, padi farmers would receive compensation in the event their crops are destroyed by natural disasters such as floods, droughts or storms.
Market risk management
Meanwhile, Universiti Putra Malaysia Faculty of Agriculture professor Datuk Dr Mad Nasir Shamsudin said that compared to the industrial sector, the food production sector is more exposed to risks and uncertainties.
In view of this, he said, there is a need to develop market risk management involving situational monitoring and price forecasting, emergency preparedness through early warnings and the introduction of natural disaster prevention measures such as irrigation and flood mitigation schemes and also food production insurance schemes.
The authorities should also monitor food prices continuously as well as ensure the effective delivery of agricultural inputs to farmers and smooth operations of food supply chain logistics as these will, ultimately, benefit the whole market.
“The industrial crop production model is something that can be emulated… especially that of oil palm plantations which coexist with huge companies and smallholders. Their success must be emulated by the padi production sector,” he said, adding that it should be operated by entrepreneurs who can develop it into a more modern and competitive sector.
In 2020, the biggest rice producers in the world were China (148.3 million metric tonnes), India (122.27 million metric tonnes), Indonesia (35.3 million metric tonnes), Bangladesh (34.6 million metric tonnes), Vietnam (27.4 million metric tonnes) and Thailand (18.9 million metric tonnes).
Commenting on this, Mad Nasir said considering that Malaysia’s economic structure is similar to Vietnam and Thailand’s, it should consider adopting the rice production model of these two nations.
“Thailand had a Padi and Rice Strategy and Policy (2017-2021). Its strategies included establishing a restructuring plan to reduce overproduction to match demand.
“Over there, land for growing crops is classified as suitable or unsuitable for padi cultivation. For land classified as suitable, the emphasis is on enhancing production and product quality. As for land deemed not suitable for padi, mixed farming or other activities will be promoted by giving incentives to the farmers.
“To reduce production costs and improve product quality, the appropriate technology is widely transferred to the farmers through good agricultural practices. Products with added value are also promoted, for example, by conducting courses and training sessions on processing, packaging and brand development,” he said.
He said the use of good agricultural practices includes innovation and investment in agricultural systems and technology such as soil and water sensors, weather tracking, satellite imaging, automation, minichromosomal technology, vertical farming, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, GPS applications, robotics and precision agriculture.
“By using these technologies, farmers, for example, no longer need to apply water, fertiliser and pesticide uniformly across the field. Instead, they can use the minimum quantity required and target specific areas that need to be treated differently,” he added.