The seven key initiatives incorporated in Budget 2021 to boost the agriculture sector and food industry are nothing but new wine in old bottles year after year.
Such initiatives do not solve the fundamental problems and predicament faced by the agriculture sector in the country.
The first three of the seven key initiatives focus on cultivating community farms. However, without a comprehensive plan for the market of agricultural product supply, it is rather irresponsible to blindly encourage more amateurs to venture into agricultural production.
As the market price of agricultural products is often unstable, small businesses would potentially lose their shirt if their crops are harvested “untimely”.
Also, instances of overproduction of domestic fruits and vegetables as well as disrupted logistic chains that happened in the past due to the spread of Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing movement control orders showed that the government was ineffective in managing critical situations.
Apart from that, Budget 2021 will allocate a funding worth RM60 million for the Agrofood Value Chain Modernisation Programme to provide agricultural entrepreneurs with up to RM1 million to procure equipment and technology based on the Industrial Revolution 4.0.
Unfortunately, this plan is virtually out of reach for most smallholder farmers who constitute the largest number of farmers in the country due to their small-scale production model and limited resources available to them.
In view of this, I would like to put forward three (3) suggestions for agricultural reforms, and hope that the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industries (MOA) will include them in their policy considerations and readjust its administrative measures in order to truly benefit small and medium farmers.
First, the government should simplify the red tape of agricultural exports.
At present, there are many redundancies in the e3P label (Grading, Packaging and Labelling) specifications of local vegetables and fruits. Such redundancies force exporters of agricultural products to key in the same data repeatedly, which increases the manpower and time required to deal with non-tariff barriers. This will in turn gradually compromise the competitiveness of Malaysia’s agricultural exports.
The government should integrate the export regulations of all relevant agencies such as Royal Malaysian Customs Department, Malaysian Quarantine and Inspection Service (MAQIS), and the Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority (FAMA), simplify all procedures, reduce the fees collected to export agricultural products, and actively encourage local farmers to increase agricultural productivity.
I believe such measures will help lay the strong foundation for our agriculture sector to prosper, and at the same time export more agricultural products in order to generate higher profits for the country.
Second, Land security should be guaranteed to assist small and medium farmers to develop towards industrial upgrading and transformation.
As land is the fundamental element in social security for farmers, safeguarding land rights is therefore imperative to protect the basic rights of farmers.
Nevertheless, there are still many small and medium farmers in Malaysia who are farming on unsecure land and facing the lurking risk of being expelled by the government and law enforcement agencies at any time. A lot of such examples can be found in Perak and Pahang.
If the government is sincere in encouraging more small and medium farmers to participate in the agricultural modernization plan, it should first implement agricultural land reforms, grant farmers agricultural land leases with longer term, and provide more substantial land rights and protections.
Such measures will ensure that the new generation of farmers can participate in the modernization plan without worrying about their land.
Third, the government should proactively step in to establish cloud databases and to provide technical services for small and medium agricultural entrepreneurs.
In advanced agricultural countries such as China, Japan, the Netherlands and so on, the Internet of Things (IoT), big data and other modern technologies have become increasingly common and widely applied in their agricultural sector.
The use of modern technologies profoundly transformed their farming model and promoted the transformation of traditional agriculture towards intelligentization, particularly “smart farming” that utilises high-end technologies.
Smart devices do not only reduce the dependence of domestic agriculture on foreign labour, but also lower production costs, improve production efficiency in the long run, and minimise direct contacts between workers.
In the midst of the pandemic, agricultural intelligence can effectively reduce the severe impacts wrought by the pandemic on agricultural production while ensuring food stability and normal production.
Malaysia’s agriculture contributed 7.1% of GDP in 2019. Despite the various challenges wrought by the pandemic, agriculture is the only important sector that can achieve 1% growth in the second quarter of this year. Furthermore, it is also one of the few sectors that are predicted to achieve growth next year (4.7%).
Therefore, visionary and long-term planning for agricultural development and transformation will definitely usher in innovations and breakthroughs for our country.