By Sofea Azahar
THE unprecedented COVID-19 crisis has served as a ‘wakeup call’ for us to not take anything for granted. Given that Malaysia is an open economy that is prone to disruptions, the issue of food security has been a ‘hot topic’ ever since. One way to try to tackle this issue is by promoting opportunities in agriculture to the young people.
Based on the definition by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), food security refers to a situation “when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food, which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.
On the other hand, food insecurity can mean we lack access to nutritious food, there isn’t enough food produced, insufficient money to purchase food or no access to transport to get food.
Given the country’s position as an open economy and the impacts from COVID-19 (i.e. export ban from trading countries and global supply chain disruption), these have shown us more reasons to keep on empowering agriculture within the society.
Data shows that Malaysia’s self-sufficiency rates in 2019 for several food items are still low namely for mutton (12.1%), ginger (16.2%), beef (23.7%), chilli (30.8%), mango (32.1%), round cabbage (36.2%) and rice (69%).
Of course, there are certain food items which are not suitable due to Malaysia’s climate but we can still focus on what is doable in the country.
For instance, although we have plenty of rice farmers, our rice imports from other countries are still quite substantial – Thailand (48.8%), Vietnam (25%), Cambodia (8.2%) and India (7.8%).
Another issue in strengthening food security is the lack of interest amongst youths to join the relevant sectors such as agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Generally, it can be observed that youths would prefer to work in blue and white-collar jobs.
According to a study conducted by Khazanah Research Institute (KRI) on youth’s job preferences, agriculture and forestry is one of the least preferred sectors for the in-school youth whilst for those in tertiary-level education.
The dean of Universiti Putra Malaysia’s faculty of agriculture, Dr Abdul Shukor Juraimi mentioned that incomes are not big enough to attract more people into agriculture. According to him, only 28 per cent of Malaysia’s population is in agriculture and the farmers, on average, are aged 60.
The share of employment in agriculture sector is also trending downwards over the years as Malaysia is one of the countries that has experienced structural transformation and diversification in economic activities from agriculture to industry-based sectors.
As agriculture is important not only for the economy but also for the people. One of the plausible ways to pursue it is by starting from core foundation (education) in order to convey the right information to the youth – infusing agriculture into education syllabus as early as from primary school.
As the education syllabus advances, agriculture’s linkages to technological advancement as well as the benefits earned through the evolving agricultural sector can be shown. Knowledge about agribusiness should also be taught by transforming the mindset of farmers from hand-to-mouth to a business orientation.
But of course, this ambition would have its own challenge as some could be sceptical about the profitability and whether it’s worth the investment and time. Thus, peer-to-peer learning can be done to reshape people’s mindsets by showing the successful stories to the young farmers as a source of inspiration and lessons.
In addition, another major way to make the sector more attractive is that it has to be profitable. In other words, the sector has to offer higher wages as it is known that the major factor which deters young people from agriculture low wages.
Latest statistics from Department of Statistics (DOSM) show that mean monthly wage in agriculture, forestry and fishing were the lowest, amongst others – RM1,997 in 2019.
That is why innovation (use of emerging technologies such as field sensors, drones) comes in crucial to make the sector ‘sexier’ in the eyes of young farmers as they would be able to see higher yields and quick results.
As the younger people are generally tech-savvy relatively to the elderly people, they are the right ones to continue empowering agriculture sector. Showcasing the evolution in agriculture to youngsters can also be done through social media as that’s the fastest channel of information for them nowadays.
A real-life example of digital technology adoption in farming that has brought better financial returns for farmers can be read here, written by Ameen Kamal. This is what it means by peer-to-peer learning as people tend to believe more in something after seeing the results.
Finally, the type of crop grown by the farmers should also be emphasised on when promoting to the youth – right education comes to play again. Some crops bring yields in a shorter period of time, some take longer time to see the worthwhile results.
Looking at the bigger picture, promoting agriculture is not only important to work on our self-sufficiency levels but it can be an alternative for the younger generations to look for better and additional incomes given the underemployment fiasco in our country and another important point, it can definitely benefit more people. – April 17, 2021
Sofea Azahar is Research Analyst at EMIR Research, a 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.