By Wira Rais Husin Mohammed Ariff, Chairman MDEC
The domain of national food security is a key pillar in the overall strategy of national development dueto its reciprocal relationships with other socio-economic fields. An effective national food security strategy will create availability and affordability, and therefore help save on household expenses. On the government side, most of the country’s allocations can be channeled to other deserving sectors.
We understand that one of the unique features of the Industrial Revolution 4.0 (4IR) is the achievable efficiencies for the entire industry. The agricultural industry is among the sectors that will benefit greatly from 4IR. Through the power of 4IR, the agricultiural industry will manage and provide food security assurance to people in a more organised manner while reducing the pressure on various resources.
Some aspects of technology have now become commonplace in the agricultural sector and has evolved in a short period due to the incoming updates to 4IR technology. This has caused difficulties in adapting, among in early generation farmers as they had already been accustomed to traditional farming methods including having extensive farms and utilising high levels of labor.
4IR is regarded an urgency for food safety. Therefore, it is not surprising that leading countries in the field of food security such as Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, Singapore and South Korea have long increased their technological capabilities to serve their people through their respective versions of “Society 5.0”. This includes the ability to provide food sources to its people.
A more detailed analysis of leading countries through Global Food Security shows that they have focused on improving agricultural and food technology. They prioritise high – tech agriculture, engineering capabilities and economic principles, establishing them as the pillars of the national food security strategy in their respective countries.
Among the trends in the country involved in this sector is making food security a top priority by the administration, the provision of large investments in agricultural technology research and development, as well as a special focus on small farmers and local agricultural technology entrepreneurs through innovative funding, incentive schemes and extensive e-commerce networking.
In this regard, having a clear national food safety strategy is one of the most important requirements for all other food safety elements to be properly integrated.
Recognising that food security is a national issue requiring breadth and depth in solutions instead of just a simple introduction of new regulations, the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) has a proven concept in the agricultural sector. MDEC pilot deployment of 4IR agri-tech was highly successful in various agricultural activities such as smart fertigation, smart misting, smart aquaculture, smart poultry, smart irrigation and smart soil monitoring. It has been observed that agtech helped increased the productivity, quality and income of small farmers by over 20 percent. Numerous farmers enjoy higher incomes and have successfully brought their produce to market.
Putting the agenda on a high pedestal results in a “whole-of-government strategy” where there is a concerted effort across all agencies and ministries. There is no unhealthy competition; all actors and players in the food security ecosystem can work together. Such concerted effort will result in effective policy implementation, creating an entire ecosystem of support including various players such as producers, academia and industry R&D, policy makers and even consumers.
History has demonstrated how other countries look at the current situation and how they have taken important steps to ensure their national food security while Malaysia has achieved a zero score in food safety indicators and policies under the Global Food Safety Index (GFSI) 2020. Therefore, it is time to have a holistic approach and strategy by the government to make food security a top priority.
Results from MDEC’s Digital Agtech pilot projects have showcased the viability of digital technologies and automation in agriculture. However, there is room for even more technological improvement. We can go beyond Industry 4.0’s version of agri-tech, and into “agtech 5.0” which is also envisioned under Malaysia 5.0, inspired by Japan’s Society 5.0. Malaysia 5.0’s vision is to create a society that is highly integrated with technology, as well as to be governed by inclusive and equitable eco-vironmental principles and practices.
In the near future, innovative fintech and trading platform such as blockchain-based peer-to-peer (p2p) marketplace platform may be considered to support small farmers by minimising the role of the middle- men (if not cut out entirely) and ensure best values for the consumers and better margins for the farmers.
Similar technologies should be applied to other crops in Malaysia, rice in particular. Despite being a major rice consumer, Malaysia is only producing roughly 70 per cent of the total demand internally, while the remaining are imported. In fact, its self-sufficiency level dropped slightly from 70 percent in 2018, to 69 per cent in 2019. A global crisis such as Covid-19 pandemic has shown Malaysia’s vulnerability in food security when trade activities are halted, depriving Malaysia from its staple food.
Thus, in addition to transcending the current notion of food security (achieved via imports supplementation) to actual self-sufficiency (at least for staple foods, major livestocks and aquaculture; for obvious national security reasons), there is existing and sizeable captive market with an upward trend to be capitalised on and technological advancement is the only way forward towards food safety, security and soverignty. The time to act on this is now.