Include idle land development in national agriculture policy: Experts
By:Bernama
Date:
Idle land

By KURNIAWATI KAMARUDIN

The vast tracts of agricultural land abandoned by their owners due to old age or other reasons are a matter of concern. If put to good use, its output can help the nation to slash its yearly food import bill that now runs into billions of ringgit.

The government must formulate a more comprehensive agriculture policy to empower the nation’s food production sector so as to ensure food security for Malaysians.

The policy should also chart out long-term, medium-term and short-term strategies to develop abandoned agricultural land in order to optimise productivity, say experts.

Land Professionals Society of Malaysia president Prof Dr Ismail Omar said the national agricultural policies thus far lacked a proper approach to developing the vast tracts of agricultural land lying idle throughout the country.

Idle lands can be turned into profitable vegetable farms. – Pix courtesy of Department of Agriculture Malaysia via Bernama

Suggesting that the federal government, through the Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Ministry, appoint a group of land, agricultural and economic experts to appraise the national agriculture policies, he said their findings may indicate the reasons for the existence of idle land.

“They must study the issue of abandoned agricultural land more deeply and then identify the causes for their existence from various angles.

“They must also review the policies and plans outlined in the policies,” said Ismail, who is a senior lecturer in land economics at Universiti Tun Hussein Onn in Batu Pahat, Johor.

Malaysia’s first National Agriculture Policy (NAP) was drafted in 1984. NAP1 covered the period from 1984 to 1991; NAP2 (1992-1997); and NAP3 (1998-2010). The NAP was replaced by the 10-year National Agro-Food Policy beginning 2011.

Ismail said the lack of focus on the development of idle land has resulted in some 300,000 hectares of ex-mining land in various parts of the country – that was suitable for the cultivation of vegetables and fruits – left unused.

“The review of the (national agriculture) policies should take into account past and current achievements (in food production), with particular reference to the link between idle land and the productivity of agricultural land,” he told Bernama.

He said a thorough and detailed study on undeveloped wakaf land would also shed some light on why its use was not optimised. According to him, only 12 per cent of the 30,000ha of wakaf land in the country has been developed.

“As such, some amendments have to be made to the nation’s agriculture policy to ensure optimum use of land,” he added.

Imports

In admitting that idle agricultural land was a waste of resources and extremely detrimental to the interests of the nation, Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority (Fama) chairman Ishak Ismail urged the state governments to identify land that has been left idle and develop an inventory of such land.

“Fama can help to connect the landowners to investors, cooperatives and commercial farmers,” he said, adding that through land lease and strategic partnerships, the two parties can benefit from the development of the otherwise unproductive land.

According to the Department of Agriculture’s 2014 statistics, no less than 119,273 hectares of agricultural land suitable for cultivation was left idle throughout the nation, with about 117,198ha located in the peninsula

If all these lands were put to good use, it could help trim Malaysia hefty food import bills.

Take, for example, its fruit and vegetable imports. Fama statistics for 2017 showed Malaysia’s fruit and vegetable import bill for 2018 touched RM8.5 billion and RM8.9 billion the previous year.

In 2017, it imported RM830.08 million worth of fruits from China, South Africa (RM518.43 million) and the United States (RM467.24 million).

The same year, its vegetable imports from China came to RM2.48 billion, followed by India (RM538.32 million) and the United States (RM405.86 million).

Ismail said although Malaysia produces a wide variety of local fruits, it only exports a few fruits like durian, mangosteen and the harum manis mango.

Pointing to the padi fields that are no longer being cultivated, he said Malaysia now imports one million tonnes of rice valued at RM1.4 billion every year, with most of its rice coming from Thailand.

“We even have to import millions of coconuts from our neighbouring country, Indonesia.

“Our country has a lot of fertile land lying around. Land plays a very important role in our lives if it is administered proper but many people don’t seem to be grateful for the land they own,” he said.

 Food Security

Commenting on Malaysia’s dependence on food imports, Ishak told Bernama that food security was among the biggest strengths of a nation and that it can only be achieved if the nation’s food production was sufficient.

Besides idle land, another problem that has to be addressed is the fact that 80 per cent of the farmers in this country are involved in subsistence farming and small-scale activities, he said.

“The small-scale farmers need assistance to identify crops that they can cultivate and can be marketed fresh or in processed form.

“To enhance the confidence of these farmers, they have to be guaranteed of markets for their produce,” Ishak added.

He also said that the fruits and vegetables imported from countries like Thailand have an advantage over local produce because the lower production costs in their countries allow them to sell their products at lower prices.

“As a country that practices a free trade policy, we can’t stop other countries’ products from entering our country. But, perhaps, the government can, through the relevant departments and agencies, tighten the procedures for the entry of food products,” he said.

He said the Health Ministry could, for example, conduct regular checks on imported food products to ensure that they complied with the Food Act 1983 and were free of pesticide residues. – Bernama

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