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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

HAVE FOOD, HAVE POWER (Part 1)


"HAVE FOOD, HAVE POWER" it is clear when he starts talking about the subject that it is a topic close to the heart of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek. Without a doubt, “food sovereignty” is not just a buzzword for the 57-year-old politician who has been overseeing the country’s agricultural affairs for over a year now. Even after a long, hot, afternoon ploughing through the new maize (corn) farm in Kampung Dadong, near Kemaman, Terengganu, Ahmad Shabery is indefatigable as he shares his aspiration to make the country self-sustainable in its agro-food production, and more. Food sovereignty, or the rights of a nation to produce its own food and not depend on imported food supplies to feed its population, is an important policy for Malaysia to adopt, he stresses. “Our country is currently importing more food than it is producing and exporting, which puts us at the mercy of foreign countries,” he says, referring to Malaysia’s food import bill last year, which was reported at RM45.39bil. Our food export amounted to only RM27bil, leaving us with a deficit of over RM18bil. It is a heavy economic burden, and that is why the Government has been aiming at self-sufficiency for some time, he adds. Once we achieve self-sustainability in our food production, it could eventually lead to food sovereignty.


Integral to the ministry’s food sovereignty plans is the Kampung Dadong grain corn farm, a pilot project to grow Malaysia’s own feed grain. “Our animal feed bill amounts to RM5.6bil a year on average (Above picture). “Corn is the most crucial raw ingredient in the feed for our chicken, cattle, goat and fish, but we import nearly 100% of it for our use at a cost of RM3.1bil a year,” says Ahmad Shabery. By farming our own corn, he adds, we can cut our food import bill while creating a new agro-based industry ecosystem that can open up opportunities through its value chain from seed production to harvesting and processing, logistics and marketing. “Do you know, grain corn (which, unlike our regular sweet corn, is not suitable for eating) has some 260 industrial uses including pharmaceutical?” he muses, before stressing, “Our priority now, of course, is to produce enough of the grain we need to feed our livestock.” Top of that livestock list are our chickens, which he describes as one of our cheapest sources of protein. As he puts it, grain corn farming could be a long-term solution for stabilising the supply and prices of local chicken. “Currently, Malaysia’s chicken production is at 110% of self sufficiency level (SSL) but this cannot be fully guaranteed because the country still relies on imported feed for the local chicken,” he says, highlighting a recent case when Argentina’s corn supply, which accounts for 90% of the corn supply to Malaysia, was affected when floods hit the country.

Imagine if there is a war or other geopolitical disasters, says Ahmad Shabery, we will suffer, especially if we rely on imports of food production inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, animal feed, machinery and equipment.

1. Why didn’t we go into grain corn farming before?
We don’t have a grain policy or grain board or grain projection. We have been relying almost 100% on imports, which depends on international pricing. We don’t have this policy because all this while, the belief is that it is cheaper to import. The irony is that our neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia and even Vietnam where they have their own policy and are looking at growing corn as their second food crop after rice. Our weather is also said to be unsuitable, but why is it possible for our neighbours to grow corn? We have the same weather and the same conditions, more or less. In the Philippines, for example, corn for feed is widely grown in (the southern state of) Mindanao. If it can grow in Mindanao, why not in Sabah?. We are currently importing up to four million tonnes of corn grain worth about RM3.1bil a year. It is causing a high outflow of our currency to foreign markets; the trade deficit for Malaysia’s agro-food was RM18.1bil in 2015 and feed grain is one of the biggest contributors to the deficit with an import cost of RM5.6bil, out of which RM3.1bil is from feed corn alone. We hope to reduce the country’s dependency on imported corn grain by at least 50% in the next few years.

2. What is the ministry’s target for rolling out the grain corn-farming project?
We are currently drawing up a corn grain policy and plan with some experts from the local universities. As for the time frame, we don’t only need to prove that we can grow grain corn here, we also need to make sure that the corn is of high quality as feed for our livestock. For instance, we want chicken fed with the corn grain to grow to 2kg in 45 days. So we need time. This pilot project will take about 100 days for its first yield (expected this September) and let’s say, with further testing, it will take about a year. I think by the second year, we can expand it on a national scale. We have already earmarked paddy fields outside of the country’s rice bowl area (kawasan jelapang padi) which is estimated to be about 164,000ha wide. It will be easier to start in these areas because the land is flat and has an existing irrigation system, and you don’t need to clear it. Like in Kampung Dadong, we want to plant the grain corn as an alternate crop in their paddy fields. The farmers in Kampung Dadong usually plant paddy from February to June, and after harvest, they leave their land unused until the next year. Under the pilot project, they are planting grain corn there from June to October. This crop rotation can increase their earnings by RM1,000 per hectare. This pilot project in Kampung Dadong is about 38ha wide. We need about 400,000ha. The Government also plans to use unused land in the country, estimated to be about 120,000ha.

(One good thing) is that we don’t need a lot of investment to grow corn. If we focus on increasing the production of rice in areas outside of our rice bowl area, we will need to put in a lot of investment in building dams, developing better irrigation systems, etcetera. With grain corn in these paddy fields, we don’t need all that and it will help stem the outflow of our currency in the future and save our currency with regards to our import bill. This initiative is part of our food security policy. So far, we have only focused on the security of our carbohydrate supply or rice. We have not focussed on the security of our protein supply. The cheapest supply of protein in the country is chicken. We currently produce enough chicken for the country’s needs; in fact, the production is at 110%, allowing us to even export some. But what many don’t realise is that the chicken feed is 100% imported. Imagine if Argentina or Brazil suddenly stop exporting chicken feed, our chicken will not have food. Now some are asking why the price of chicken has gone up even though our supply of chicken is meeting our needs – it’s not a question of simple supply and demand. The price hike is due to the hike in import prices, fall of our currency, delay in the delivery, and others. We need to look at it from an agro-economics perspective.

Original info from local newspaper and published.

Rearranged by,
M Anem,
Senior Agronomist,
Kg Dadong, Kemaman,
Terengganu, Malaysia.
(Attended the official grain corn planting by Minister)

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