Are we going to lose our staple food to development?

Rice is our staple food and central to our culture. Thus it is dismaying to learn that almost 100,000ha of paddy land in Peninsular Malaysia has been converted in the past 15 years, arising in increase in rice imports to meet local needs.

The Malaysian government’s ill-defined development strategies and pursuance of export earnings has brought us to the stage that we have to import more rice and food. Over the years our paddy land has been paved over with highways, factories, houses; converted for aquaculture, oil palm plantations, and cash crops; all in the name of progress.

Even permanent granary areas that should have been totally protected from development, for example in the Muda and Kerian-Sungai Manik schemes were converted for aquaculture projects such as arowana breeding in Bukit Merah and shrimp farming in Kerpan. Most recently we have received complaints of concrete buildings being erected on paddy fields for swiftlet rearing.

Some of these projects are under the auspices of the government. Approval is given for land use conversion from agriculture (paddy) purpose to residential or industrial purpose without giving a thought to us losing our staple food production area.

Some development projects are carried out illegally, but instead of penalizing the culprits, the government legalizes them, as in the case of several arowana breeding ponds being built on paddy land without approval from the relevant authority but then given leeway.

We fear that our self-sufficiency in rice will decline further if the Malaysian government does not correct the situation.  Farmers are already facing constraints in their ability to increase rice yields, to some extent due to soil degradation after years of excessive use of chemical inputs. Pests and disease attacks are on the rise.  Climate change is playing a role, too, by increasing the frequency of extreme droughts and floods.

Rice is rich in genetic diversity but we have lost most of our traditional varieties to hybrids. MARDI Rice Research Centre claimed that farmers uptake of hybrid seed developed with technology from China are slow. This could be due to their previous bad experience in growing hybrid rice that did not perform as well as promoted.

We need good quality seeds in sufficient quantities locally.  However our farmers’ have lost control over seeds due to government’s price support policies and advent of corporate control over the seed. CAP had been receiving numerous complaints of irrigation and drainage problems resulting in crop failure or paddy land being left idle. Massive public investment for development of irrigation schemes had been fraught with problems.

Innovative ways to cultivate rice such as the ‘System of Rice Intensification’ initiated in Madagascar should be pursued.  This system which is based on sound ecological and agronomic principles not only reduces water utilization but reduces the seed quantity required and increases the yields.  The experiences from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Philippines, Cambodia and Madagascar show the advantages of the system.  While SRI is suitable for certain conditions, there are various other such successful initiatives which need to be studied before being promoted.

The Malaysian government needs to reform our food production system to meet rice and food sufficiency for our growing population. We cannot rely on food imports anymore due to escalating food prices and global climate change that may negatively impact agriculture production.

The shrinking of the areas for rice production must be overcome, idle paddy land restored and various organic system of rice intensification pursued.

Letter to the Editor, 2 April 2012