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LAND USE OPTIONS: Need to make farming viable and an attractive source of income
A SITUATION where everyone has easy access to safe and nutritious food at all times remains utopian. The reality is that the world is facing increasingly grim prospects of either widespread hunger or serious malnutrition. A lot, it seems, has gone wrong with farm-to-plate processes food items go through.
When leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) economies met for their annual meeting in Vladivostok, Russia, recently, one of the primary issues deliberated on was food security. Quite rightly, diplomats at the summit consider the subject just as urgent as that of depleting sources of clean water and shall have a bearing on global security itself.
The numbers are far from comforting. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has projected that the world must raise food production by 70 per cent from the current level by 2050, to support a global population rise of about 30 per cent.
The world population is expected to rise to a staggering nine billion by then. If we put what FAO projects against what is really happening around the world, it seems widespread hunger seems inevitable.
But a rapidly increasing world population is not an immediate worry, although at some point of time in the future it could pose a problem. What is of more immediate concern would be the pricing out of poorer countries from easy access to safe and nutritious food.
In the 2008 food crisis, climate change played a devastating role when draught in major wheat-producing countries within the preceding two years cut production significantly.
At the time, it was estimated that world wheat reserves could last for just slightly more than 50 days. The price of the commodity skyrocketed as an immediate result and at least one government was toppled by widespread rioting.
Speculative trading on the world's commodities markets are also to be blamed for the sometimes unrealistic prices of food items on the shelves, an issue market regulators must take notice of.
Drought and speculative trading activities aside, other factors are equally threatening, one of which concerns economic land use.
In Malaysia, for example, it is clear that usage of land is skewed more towards property development or even if for agriculture, corporations are more inclined to plant either oil palm or rubber as these commodities bring higher earnings than any farm produce.
As a result, we have become a net importer of food items and Malaysia's food import bill has been high in the past decade or so.
Malaysia is about 70 per cent self-sufficient when it comes to rice supply although the level is increasing with the government's realisation that we cannot forever rely on imported rice, especially after having supplies significantly threatened following major floods in Thailand two years ago.
There is no other option than for each nation to build its own food supply capacity.
There is still sizeable arable land in Malaysia where farming activities for the production of food could be undertaken, although the challenge, however, would be in making farming an attractive source of income.
At present, it is still very much the last option for Malaysians who tend to associate the activity more with back-breaking and dirty work.
The authorities must make farming attractive, such as by striking a balance between keeping prices of farm produce affordable for end consumers and keeping farming itself a viable economic activity for farmers.
In future international fora, food security will continue to be discussed as there are a myriad of other impediments threatening easy availability of food across the world.
They would include challenges as broad as the level of development of a particular country itself or even issues related to international trading arrangements.