Food Insecurity: Where we went wrong (Part 1)

HISTORY shows that Malaysia has never been short of policies related to agriculture or food. Ironically, the policy abundance has proven to be insufficient to ensure food security.

Past policies have proven inconsistent in terms of self-sufficiency targets and many major food items still rely on import supplementations. Food items with 100% or more self-sufficiency levels still rely on significant external inputs.

Policy commitment and implementation remain a central issue, underlined by structural, economic, and governance weaknesses.

Objectives of past policies?

The first to the Third National Agricultural Policy spanning the 1980s to 2010 focused on addressing rural poverty and bridging the economic gap between small-scale and large-scale farmers, increasing sustainable food production and competitiveness.

According to the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) under the Prime Minister’s Department, the National Agrofood Policy 2011-2020 (NAP 1.0) was supposed to address food security and safety to ensure availability, affordability and accessibility, ensure the competitiveness and sustainability of the agrofood industry and increase the income level of agropreneurs.

In general, investigating Malaysia’s current status points to the failure of a decade-worth of NAP 1.0 in key dimensions of food security.

Where are we now?

A closer look into a well-known global index on food security informs us of Malaysia’s worrying food security status despite mouthful policy objectives that seemingly encapsulate everything. Global geopolitical events of the last two years also revealed the substance of these policies resulting in Malaysia’s food insecurities.

Looking at historical figures for Malaysia’s scores on the four dimensions of food security used in the Global Food Security Index (GFSI) 2021—Affordability, Availability, Quality & Safety and Natural Resources & Resilience (Figure 1)— it may seem that our relative ranking or score in certain dimensions such as affordability and quality and safety are not that bad, especially when compared with other countries that are performing poorly as well.

However, we have to investigate deeper, to see if these scores and relative comparisons adequately represent the actual situation on the ground.

The availability and natural resource resilience dimensions suffered greatly over the past decade. Malaysia dipped well-below global average in the middle of the last decade and remained below (and getting worse) in the natural resource resilience dimension.

Table 1 below summarises the GFSI-2020 indicators for which we observe a negative difference with the high-performing countries in the Asia-Pacific region as a group.

As we can see, from the first glance, although Malaysia appears on par with the top-performing countries on the affordability dimension (as shown in Figure 1 earlier), comparing Malaysia’s score with the median score for high-performing countries in GFSI 2020 and 2021 reveals that the country’s market access and agricultural financial services are significantly lagging.

Malaysia scored low on the availability of diversified financial products for all farmers (including small-holders) and access to market data and mobile banking which has been in a declining trend since 2016.

Additionally, and as evidently shown, the availability dimension tops the list of problematic areas for Malaysia. The remarkable difference is Malaysia’s low score on the indicator of food security and access policy commitments in GFSI 2020.

A closer examination reveals that this indicator includes assessing whether the country’s Government has made food security a focus area and priority and has a clear food security strategy.

Notably, from 2012 to 2020, Malaysia has been receiving a zero score on this measure from food security experts.

For the same period, from 2012 to date, the experts have also been highly skeptical of the Malaysian Government’s ability to be held responsible and accountable for whether it has invested in and taken a coordinated approach to achieve food security.

In GFSI 2021, Malaysia has finally received a score of 50 for food security and access policy commitment mainly due to the formation of a National Food Security Council. However, further analysis reveals this event did not change Malaysia’s food security equation.

Poor performance of key food security indicators

Further examination into the current (successor) policy (NAP 2.0) clearly points to the underwhelming performance of its predecessor, NAP 1.0.

As shown in Figure 2A, Malaysia experienced marginal improvements or even reductions in the self-sufficiency level (SSL) of major food items between 2010 to 2020. Most food items decreased (in red), while only three recorded growths (in black), which are all very marginal.

Notably, rice SSL is below its 70% SSL target in NAP 1.0, and some contractions in food item SSL appear contrary to its growth demand—pointing to higher dependency on imports.

For example, milk experienced a significant SSL decrease despite being the highest consumption growth (11.61% CAGR 2010-2020), and beef and mutton experienced significantly declining SSL despite significant consumption growth (4.14% CAGR; 2010-2020), as reported in NAP 2.0.

Between 2010 to 2020, Malaysia also experienced a declining share of agriculture gross domestic product (GDP) contribution (Figure 2B), indicating a higher focus on other sectors and/or reduced reliance on agriculture for the Malaysian economy.

Note that the NAP 2.0 document shows the 2020 forecast figure, while Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM) reported that the contribution of the agriculture sector to Malaysia’s GDP in 2020 is 7.4%—slightly higher than the forecast.

Of course, we recognise that Malaysia may experience further declined agriculture GDP contribution due to logistics and export restriction measures during the lockdown periods.

Be that as it may, in the background of marginal growth/contraction of SSL for major food items, increasing food demand can only be met by increasing imports. Especially when in presence of a declining share of agricultural GDP contribution the reduced SSL reflects decreasing local production capacities for major food items.

Fair enough, the NAP 2.0 reported an increasing trade deficit between 2010 to 2020, and a widening production-consumption gap (Figure 2C).

Indeed, the policy document reported that the major agrofood consumption rate is more than the growth rate of the production, with the only exception of rice which saw a slightly declining local demand, and that consumption would likely surpass local production capacities should the trend continue.

These indicate increasing reliance on imports to fulfil local demand and point to increased reliance on external supply chains to support the domestic needs of the agrofood sector. – June 28, 2022


Dr Rais Hussin and Ameen Kamal are part of the research team at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.

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