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Tak Cukup Nasi! Malaysia’s Rice Supply Dilemma 

When it comes to agriculture, Malaysia excels in producing cash crops, demonstrating its cutting-edge capabilities in palm oil, rubber and cocoa production. But when it comes to its agro-food sector, our country is far less diverse – with much of it focused on rice production even though rice only consists of less than 1% of household expenditure in Malaysia nowadays[1].

Malaysia has been grappling with a shortage in its local rice supply in recent years. Notably, supermarkets and grocery stores struggle with deficits in domestically produced rice, compelling consumers to opt for the pricier imported alternatives.

C. Ramu, a local grocer at  Taman Seri Andalas, Klang, is among those affected. He mentioned that all three of his regular rice distributors had stopped supplying him with locally produced rice.

Two of them told me in early August that they cannot supply local rice anymore and the third distributor gave me 20 bags in the middle of August and said that was all he had. – C. Ramu, grocery store owner[2]

Ramu now only receives imported rice, which he was selling at RM33 for a 10kg bag. However, his distributors had cautioned him that the price might see an increase shortly.

Osman Abdul Rahman, a rice distributor, also shared that he hadn’t received any local rice from his primary supplier since early August.

We only have imported rice, but by right, we should only sell 30% of imported rice, with the remaining 70% being rice produced by local farmers.

That is how it was before. – Osman Abdul Rahman, rice distributor[2]

Given that rice is the staple food of Malaysians, it is necessary to find a solution to this problem. However, before we tackle this challenge, it is vital to delve into the historical context of rice agriculture in our nation. This historical perspective will help us better comprehend the complexities of the issue at hand.

Rice Planting Roots In Malaysia

Malaysia is not the only country that depends on rice; more than a billion people globally rely on rice cultivation for subsistence and livelihood, responsible for feeding more than 3.5 billion people. And in many developing countries, rice farming is the main source of income for about 200 million households[3].

Malaysian rice agriculture has a long history; paddy cultivation was introduced from mainland Southeast Asia to the Malay archipelago by Deutero-Malays more than three millennia ago. Over the centuries, paddy planting was the mainstay of the Malay economy and, to an extent, determined their rural way of life[4].

Rice wasn’t always the staple crop in Malaysia.  Before Merdeka, tapioca was the primary food crop for impoverished workers, with much of Malaysia’s agriculture focused on cash crops such as rubber, cacao and oil palm[3]. Rice cultivation, on the other hand, was concentrated in kampungs along coasts and rivers, where water for irrigation was within easy reach, leading to a subsistence lifestyle with very little cash earnings[4].

The landscape began to transform after Merdeka. In this new era, the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI) was established to lead research and development efforts in agriculture, encompassing rice and paddy production. The year 1971 marked another significant development with the creation of the National Board of Paddy and Rice (LPN), tasked with overseeing the national rice supply and promoting the welfare of farmers.  Fast forward to 1994, and the LPN corporatised Padiberas Nasional Berhad (BERNAS), the nation’s single rice gatekeeper, responsible for managing and regulating the rice industry[3].

Thanks to milestones such as the construction of the Muda Irrigation Project (1966–1970), which supplied water for the rice granaries in Kedah and Perlis[3], and the Sungai Tengi irrigation project contributed to the success of padi planting in Tanjung Karang, Selangor[4], rice became the third most important crop in Malaysia, after oil palm and rubber.

The Sungai Tengi irrigation project contributed to the success of padi planting in Tanjung Karang, Selangor. – Pic courtesy of Alan Teh Leam Seng. (Source: New Straits Times)

From Seed To Sufficiency

Source: The Star

Given rice’s importance in our country, it is no surprise that the government has created extensive policies to govern the rice farming sector and achieve a 100% self-sufficiency level (SSL) for rice production in Malaysia. Various policies under different names have been implemented to help improve food security and to increase farmers’ incomes.

One of the more recent policies introduced is the National Food Security Policy and Agrofood Policy (2011–2020), introduced to increase the national rice buffer stock.

Furthermore, the current National Food Security Policy Action Plan (2021–2025) has vouched to embrace the five pillars of food security as per the UN’s definition: availability, accessibility, consumption, stability and sustainability[3].

Empty Paddy Fields, Rising Grocery Bills

Despite the desire to achieve 100% SSL in rice production, Malaysia’s rice industry has yet to meet this level. 

Based on the latest statistics released by the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM) on September 7th, Malaysia has a self-sufficiency ratio of only 62.6%for rice in 2022, highlighting our ongoing dependence on other nations like India, Vietnam, and Thailand to meet our domestic demand for rice.

Meanwhile, Malaysia’s per capita rice consumption for 2022 averaged 77 kilograms per person[5].

With India recently revealed its decision on July 20, 2023, to halt the export of non-basmati white rice with immediate effect due to the purpose of reducing rice prices within the country and ensuring a steady supply of rice for domestic consumption, Former Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry Deputy Minister Sim Tze Tzin fears that the threat of food insecurity will loom upon us shortly[6].

And sadly, given the recent rice shortages, those fears came true.

The local rice shortages are a killer on the livelihoods of both rice suppliers and consumers. As a result, consumers are compelled to buy imported rice at rising prices, which can significantly impact the incomes of the M40 and B40 socioeconomic groups. Already, Padiberas Nasional Bhd (Bernas) has reported a substantial price increase for imported white rice, surging from RM2,350 to RM3,200 per metric tonne since 1st September[7].

Malaysian Indian Restaurant Owners Association vice-president C. Krishnan laments on how even though rice is becoming more expensive, people are still wasting it by the platefuls.

Source: The Star

Rice used to be very cheap, ranging from 50sen to RM1. Now it costs between RM2 and RM3 per serving. – C. Krishnan, Malaysian Indian Restaurant Owners Association vice-president[8]

Krishnan added that restaurants typically need to cook 50kg of rice daily.

There’s no need to cook the entire quantity in the morning, so the issue of wasting rice by storing it for the next day doesn’t arise. – C. Krishnan, Malaysian Indian Restaurant Owners Association vice-president[8]

For housewife Kamaria Ismail, 38, finding locally-produced rice brands proved to be a challenge as a result of this shortage. Because of this, she had to purchase imported rice for over three weeks.

I have not come across the 5kg pack for some time while for the 10kg, I managed to purchase it once and then I could not find it anymore. So, I have no choice but to get the imported rice although it is expensive… and prices have gone up several times too. – Kamaria Ismail, housewife[8]

Such was the rice shortage problem that the government had to impose a maximum limit of 100kg of local white rice per buyer from September 7th onwards until the situation stabilised[5]. Fortunately, the rice supplies had managed to stabilise in some states, but the fact that shortages happened in the first place should be a grave warning.

Pointing Figures For Our Empty Plates 

Farmers Organisation Authority (LPP) deputy director of development Amir Mat Amin blames the rice shortage we are experiencing on uncertain weather and diseases throughout the last harvest season between April and August.

He further explained that under normal circumstances, the paddy yield per harvest averages around seven metric tonnes per hectare. However, last season, this yield dropped to only four metric tonnes.

There are also farmers whose yield has been affected due to floods. A shift in consumption has also contributed to this shortage. – Amir Mat Amin, Farmers Organisation Authority (LPP) deputy director of development[9]

Sekinchan paddy farmer Yap Kang Pua believes there’s another reason for the shortages – farmers were forced to use dirty water to irrigate the paddy fields. He added that this was not a new development as the shortage of clean water for the padi fields first took root almost a decade ago and had escalated to the current situation.

Our yield is very bad because we have to pump water from the nearby waterways into the fields, but the water from this source is contaminated. – Yap Kang Pua, paddy farmer[2]

Because of this, explained Yap, a lot of the plants died before reaching maturity. The only solution, he added, was for the relevant authorities to tap underground water and build a covered storage area for farmers to water their fields.

Another paddy farmer, Mohd Asri Badron, also from Sekinchan, blamed this problem on poor-quality seeds, with the plants succumbing to various padi-related diseases such as bacterial leaf streak disease (BLS), bacterial leaf blight (BLB) and bacterial panicle blight (BPB).

Asri hoped that Malaysian paddy farmers would have access to the hybrid seeds commonly used by farmers in neighbouring rice-producing nations.

Our seeds are not hybrid and are weak. That is why they are easily damaged by BLS, BLB or BPB. Hybrid seeds are sturdier and can fight infection better. – Mohd Asri Badron, paddy farmer[2]

Ng Suee Lim, Sekinchan assemblyman and Selangor executive councillor, provides a more sinister theory behind the shortages – rice syndicates have been packaging and selling local rice as imported varieties. He further states that the authorities must also monitor the distribution chain to ensure the thing is happening.

This is also one of the factors behind the shortage of locally produced rice.

There is a syndicate behind this and when they repackage local rice and sell it as an imported product, they will be selling it for between RM33 and RM35, which is higher than the RM26 price set for 10kg of local rice. – Ng Suee Lim, Sekinchan assemblyman and Selangor executive councillor[2]

Regardless of whether you suspect a criminal syndicate is involved in rebranding locally produced rice as imported products or views it as a consequence of climate change, it is obvious that a solution is needed if the government wants to avoid another, more severe shortage in the future.

Source: Malay Mail

A Grain Of Hope

To address the recent rice shortages, the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industries (MAFI) introduced the Local White Rice Special Programme to increase rice production by 20%. During a meeting between paddy farmers and Bernas, Agriculture and Food Security Minister Datuk Seri Mohamad Sabu expressed hope in finding a middle- and long-term solution for the matter.

We previously introduced an initiative such as the Mini Sekinchan Large-Scale Smart Padi Project (Smart SBB), where they managed to increase padi production to 11 tonnes per hectare; this is three times more than the usual production.

We are also planning to upgrade our padi field watering system to help increase production next year. – Datuk Seri Mohamad Sabu, Agriculture and Food Security minister[10]

This program is just one of several initiatives that have been implemented to enhance rice production and achieve 100% self-sufficiency. These initiatives include encouraging youths to enter agriculture and take the baton from current farmers, promoting the use of the Internet of Things and Industrial Revolution 4.0 products among stakeholders, and doubling research and development efforts to discover new disease-resistant seeds.

The ministry has also introduced several programmes to reduce the impact of various global factors currently affecting the industry. According to MAFI Padi Industry Development Division director-general Azman Mahmood, last year alone saw pesticide subsidies being increased to RM62 million to absorb the higher costs of agricultural inputs, the prices of which have gone up significantly globally.

We’ve also introduced an agricultural insurance scheme to deal with rice crops often hit by natural disasters and also introduced organic fertilisers to treat soil as well as reduce the use of chemical fertilisers. – Azman Mahmood, MAFI Padi Industry Development Division director-general[11]

Acknowledging Malaysia’s need to improve the production of its staple crop, Azman said the government needs to come up with a drastic move to boost the nation’s rice productivity rate.

Although the government has been implementing various programmes and given out aid and incentives worth billions of ringgit every year, an analysis done by our ministry found that the productivity of both granary and non-granary areas have failed to be satisfactory. – Azman Mahmood, MAFI Padi Industry Development Division director-general[11]

He further highlighted the importance of the private sector in this role:

“The ministry intends to attract private investors to make the nation’s paddy and rice industry more dynamic and competitive.”

Bringing up the SMART Large-scale Field programme (SMART SBB) as an example, Azman said the program’s target is to increase the national average paddy yield to 7.0 metric tonnes a hectare during the 12th Malaysian Plan (2026-2030) period, compared to the current average yield of 3.5 to 4.3 metric tonnes a hectare.

In the long term, the programme targets to develop a total of 150,000 hectares of paddy fields per season or 300,000 hectares a year. With the encouraging response from industry players and the incomes of the farmers involved increasing by up to 180 per cent, the ministry is confident of meeting its SSL target of 75% by the end of 2025. – Azman Mahmood, MAFI Padi Industry Development Division director-general[11]

The program will also utilise technology like the Internet of Things (IoT) and economies of scale to uplift production per hectare, according to Ronald Kiandee, Minister of Agriculture and Food Industries.

We are exploring drone capability for effective monitoring and spraying of fertilisers and other chemicals to reduce costs yet increase rice farming productivity. It will also raise farmers’ incomes by mitigating middleman involvement throughout the supply chain. – Ronald Kiandee, Minister of Agriculture and Food Industries[12]

Source: Malay Mail

Economist Barjoyai Bardai of Universiti Tun Abdul Razak that we already have some new farming methods to improve rice yields and production, highlighting how Indonesia had adopted a technique developed by Cornell University which had the potential to yield more than 15 tonnes of rice per hectare, more than double Malaysia’s current yields of five to six tonnes per hectare.

I proposed this technology to the Kedah state government. Initially, they agreed, but the then minister of agriculture eventually rejected the plan. – Barjoyai Bardai, economist[13]

Instead, it was adopted in Kelantan for a pilot project that yielded about 12 tonnes of rice per hectare.

We have the technology and capability. Yet we have been content with producing 62% locally and importing the remaining 38%. It is this 38% that’s causing the problem now. – Barjoyai Bardai, economist[13]

He said a new technology developed in Kedah could produce more than 10 tonnes per hectare and local supply shortfalls would be solved within half a year with this approach.

The government should not waste money unnecessarily on subsidies because it would have to adjust and reallocate funds from other areas, and that’s not right. As long as we continuously farm, we can produce enough rice. We need to change the people’s perception that we are short of rice, even though there is a potential crisis globally. – Barjoyai Bardai, economist[13]

However, some believe that instead of directing all resources and efforts solely towards enhancing the rice production sector, the government should also focus on improving and diversifying other agro-food sectors. Indeed, 2019 data from the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM) reveals that Malaysia has yet to fully diversify its agricultural production base. 

Notably, the non-agro-food sub-sector, represented by oil palm, continues to be a significant contributor to the agricultural sector, accounting for 37.7%. This is followed by other agricultural activities (25.9%), livestock (15.3%), fishing (12.0%), forestry & logging (6.3%), and rubber (3.0%)[1].

BusinessToday states that by putting greater emphasis on the agro-food sector, the government could empower farmers to plant more nutritious, higher-value crops; improve their soil through modern technology applications (i.e., IoT, Big Data, and artificial intelligence (AI), and benefit from increased opportunities by earning adequate returns on their generally small landholdings[1].

Source: BusinessToday

To reduce our reliance on imported food, Sim suggested the need to prioritise the purchase of locally produced fresh goods as supporting local farmers means encouraging them to increase planting and production. 

Let the farmers make money so that they can plant more. Do not send our money overseas by buying imported foods. Also, reduce food waste. – Sim Tze Tzin, Former Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry Deputy Minister[6]

We must also consider alternative farming methods. This includes vertical farming and controlled environment agriculture, which can significantly boost food production, especially in urban areas with limited available agricultural land. In addition, efficient water usage is crucial for sustainable agriculture. Technologies such as specialised irrigation systems (drip and sprinkler) and water recycling can help conserve water resources.

Finally, there is also the shadow of climate change and the need to create proactive strategies that emphasise climate-resilient agricultural practices, which Agriculture Department Deputy DG of Agriculture (management and regulatory) Nor Sam Alwi highlighted.

There are several projects for soil conservation under the Agriculture Department such as the Sustainable Agricultural Management in Sensitive Areas and Site-Specific Nutrient Management Project, which aim to reduce carbon emissions in the country’s agricultural sector. 

Climate change brings unpredictable weather patterns, extreme events and temperature shifts. Strategies for sustainable food security must prioritise the utilisation of climate-resilient agricultural practices. – Nor Sam Alwi, Agriculture Department Deputy DG of Agriculture[6]

The recent rice shortages have made one thing clear: not only must we improve our rice production but we must also expand our agro-foods beyond rice to ensure true food security in the future.  As Barjoyai cautioned, failure to do so will only lead to prolonged and more severe shortages.

Explore our sources:

  1. BusinessToday. (2021). Diversifying Malaysia’s agro-food sector as the way to stimulate agricultural development. Link.
  2. The Star. (2023). Shortage of local rice due to diseases and lack of clean water. Link.
  3. D. Dorairaj & N.T. Govender. (2023). Rice and paddy industry in Malaysia: governance and policies, research trends, technology adoption and resilience. Frontier. Link.
  4. A.T. Leam Seng. (2022). How Malaya boosted rice production. New Straits Times. Link.
  5. I. Lim. (2023). Mydin says facing local rice supply shortage, fends off customers’ accusations of hiding stock. Malay Mail. Link.
  6. A. Zalani. (2023). Malaysia at risk of short-term food insecurity. The Malaysian Reserve. Link.
  7. T.A. Yusof. (2023). Price of imported white rice up by 36%, says Bernas. The Star. Link.
  8. K. Gek San. (2023). Malaysians continue to waste rice despite price rise, say eatery owners. The Star. Link.
  9. Bernama. (2023). Uncertain weather, disease among factors for local white rice shortage. The Star. Link.
  10. R. Nordin. (2023). Local white rice yield to be increased by 20%. The Star. Link.
  11. Bernama. (2022). Agriculture Ministry assures Malaysia’s rice supply stable, enough to meet local demand. Malay Mail. Link.
  12. BusinessToday. (2021). Large-Scale Paddy Cultivation Initiative to Boost Rice Production And Farmers’ Incomes. Link.
  13. N. Prabu. (2023). We have the means to produce more rice, says economist. FMT. Link.

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