There is tremendous unrealised potential in Malaysia in terms of investment in technology to increase agriculture production, says a leading expert with extensive research experience in economics related to agriculture and international trade.
The land is there, people are there, but missing is investment and innovation,” said Prof David Roland-Holst, Director of the Centre for Energy, Resources and Economic Sustainability (CERES) at the University of California, Berkeley.
He wanted investors to participate in agro-food since agricultural productivity growth is the way to move forward and will also promote rural development. “I remain optimistic in investment in more technology-intensive agricultural methods,” he added.
He was responding to questions on whether Malaysia is headed in the right direction considering the government’s emphasis on agriculture in the past few years. About 50 attended the public lecture on ‘Regional Trade: Opportunities for Asian Agriculture’ organised by Wawasan Open University at its main campus.
Prof Roland-Holst however cautioned against food self-sufficiency policies but advocated food security, clarifying, “Malaysia needs higher agriculture production, not mandated supply. Food security makes more sense, which is finding a sustainable source of food which is cost-effective.”
He said food self-sufficiency measures like pushing for low-value crops are potentially risky, and so to allow farmers to grow high-value crops. He felt the government can play an “enabling role” while leaving it to the private sector to determine what food to produce.
Earlier in his talk, he said the enormous potential for regional agro-food import demand from China will create opportunities for investment for the other Asian nations. “One of every seven farmers in the world is Chinese. Should Southeast Asian famers be worried about this? No, because one of every five consumers in the world is Chinese.
Prof Roland-Holst said that China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of food, but it has recently passed the tipping point in food self-sufficiency, which means within a decade, it will be the world’s largest importer of food.
He said that China’s farmland is scarce and not much water in areas where it is needed, stressing that “China has 20% of the world population but only 7% of the world farmland, and this is shrinking”.
He noted that the urban-rural migration of China’s population is also posing huge problems and challenges to the food supply chain and labour, because urbanites use more than twice the water as the rural people. “Half a billion people are moving from the food supply side to the demand side,” he added.
He highlighted that rising incomes in China are also increasing the resource-intensity of food consumption as people eat more meat rather than vegetable proteins.
“Even if population remained constant over the next 20 years, China would have to double agricultural capacity to meet its changing food requirements,” said Prof Roland-Holst.
The one-hour session chaired by Tan Sri Andrew Sheng, a member of the National Economic Advisory Council (NEAC), was also attended by WOU Vice Chancellor Prof Dr Wong Tat Meng and Wawasan Education Foundation chairman Dato’ Seri Stephen Yeap.