A switch from tobacco to food crops requires a clear policy, not just a clarion call
THOUGH initiatives to reduce cigarette consumption will adversely impact the lives and livelihoods of tobacco growers, they are not unaware that smoking is bad for health and no longer socially acceptable. As the initiatives to discourage smoking would obviously be that much harder without their support, the call for their cooperation by the health minister on World Tobacco Day on Wednesday was well directed. The appeal was also well-focused as it targeted food crops to replace tobacco. In this regard, it represents a welcome change in emphasis in the tobacco substitution strategy. Though other possibilities were considered under the Tobacco Industry Restructuring Plan launched in 2005, it is kenaf that has been identified as the alternative crop to tobacco, as reflected in the restructuring of the National Tobacco Board into the National Kenaf and Tobacco Board in 2009, and reiterated by the deputy minister of plantation industries and commodities at the Second Asia Tobacco Forum in March.
To be sure, there are good reasons for promoting the natural fibre as it can be developed for different industrial applications such as packaging, paper products and bio-fuels. As such, there is no reason why strong support for kenaf cultivation, processing and marketing should not continue. But at the same time, there is no reason why the focus should just be on one crop rather than a variety of crops. In this regard, diversifying into food crops has the added advantage of increasing the country's food stock and improving food security, a not unimportant consideration in view of the large import bill.
No doubt, the sandy "Beach Ridges Interspersed with Swales" (BRIS) soil in states like Kelantan and Terengganu on which tobacco is planted is "problematic" and not well suited for food crops. But then again, as BRIS soil is only marginally suitable for kenaf cultivation, mulching with rice straw, irrigation during the dry seasons, mixing with more clayey soils and adding organic matter have been required. What is clear is that fertility and productivity can be improved with good management practices. Indeed, Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi) researchers have shown that the sandy soil can be improved with chicken dung or oil palm waste and irrigated with tube well water to grow sweet potato in rotation with ground nuts and other crops. For sure, "Technology Development Project Packages" like the ones developed by the Agriculture Department are needed. But more than this, like the development of the kenaf industry, there is a need for a clear policy supportive of food crops as viable alternatives to tobacco and strong government support that includes technical assistance, market development and financial incentives.