After my primary school education I almost had to quit school. It was in the 1970s, most of the people from my village were from low income households with no regular source of income, surviving on subsistence farming.
So my parents had hoped that I help out with the family farming activities than continuing on to secondary school education, which at that time unlike today, was not free-of-charge.
Coming from a family of farmers and with my own training as a forester, until today I constantly seek innovative ways to scale-up agricultural activities to ensure food security in the country and to produce safe food.
The United Nations World Food Programme stated that food security is the “availability of adequate access of sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”. In the 2017 Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Global Food Security Index, Malaysia ranked 41 out of 113 countries, faring not too ideally in the category of “sufficiency of supply”.
A local research paper has found that some food security challenges we are facing are the lack of land resources, idle land and shortages in the agricultural workforce.
Although there could be many factors and approaches to solve them, an immediate means is to use science and technology to not only increase productivity but also value-add. Here are some of the successful food production initiatives that MOSTI has carried out in Sabah.
Facilitated by Bioeconomy Corporation, a seafood enterprise has been employing its very own in-house technology to produce quality and sufficient live feed for breeding shrimps. They aimed to eventually breed 11,774 metric tonnes annually in more than 800 ponds throughout Sabah.
The Annual Fisheries Statistics reported that in 2012, Malaysia imported 39,571 metric tonnes of shrimp and prawn. By scaling up the feed and thus shrimp production, we are able to reduce our dependency on imports.
This enterprise has even collaborated with the Sabah Economic Development and Investment Authority (SEDIA) on a Bioeconomy Community Development Project (BCDP). In Pitas, 350 communities have participated in this shrimp agricultural project, where there would be a buy-back guarantee by the enterprise. Both science and technology coupled with a sustainable business model have benefited grassroots, the economy and at the same time improve food security.
In the case for mushroom production, a corporation has established a centre in Masilau, Kundasang, to produce inoculated mushroom spawn. They maintain a hygienic growth environment, suitable temperature and humidity, and ensure that the inoculation is highly sterilised for the quality growth of shiitake mushrooms.
Similar to the case of shrimps, they partnered with 45 contract farmers in Kimanis by providing them with mushroom spawns and inoculated substrates. With this they would be breaking their 20-year record of mushroom production volume, from just 33,000 kg a year to 154,000 kg a year.
The Department of Agriculture Malaysia described that domestic mushroom production in 2016 was 4,830 metric tonnes. The demand for mushrooms is estimated to rise to 67,000 metric tonnes by 2020, which means we still have a long way in reducing our dependency on mushroom importation.
On scaling up food production and maximising land use, as I shared in my previous column the story of a young Universiti Malaysia Sabah graduate Azizul Julirin, who has proactively grown vegetables on his family’s plot of small land using an unconventional method that would solve typical farming problems – aquaponics (the combination of aquaculture and hydroponics).
Although his produce is now limited to just red and green coral lettuce, his near future plans would be to expand this technique to strawberries, Japanese cucumber and tomatoes.
Our food import bill was RM 45.39 bil in 2015 whereas food export was only RM 27 bil. According to the Minister of Agriculture of Agro-Based Industry Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek, poultry and meat farmers were burdened by heavily relying on imports for animal feed, amounting to RM 5 bil a year on average.
Although the country produces 70 per cent of the population’s needs, 80 per cent of our milk and meat are still reliant on imports.
Science and technology has uplifted even subsistence farmers like my family once used to be since the 1970s through good programs like the BCDP. However we have a long way before achieving self-sufficiency in food. Our future initiatives in the bioeconomy through science and technology could be extended to scale up other agricultural production.