WHEN the country gained its independence, agriculture, in particular rubber, was one of the twin pillars of the economy.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, the agricultural sector, which consisted largely of commercial crops such as rubber, cocoa and oil palm, contributed about 20 per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP), while its share of employment stood at 30 per cent.
The availability of vast tracts of arable land, abundant labour, improvements in agricultural infrastructure such as irrigation and roads, research and development and improvements in farm tools and equipment kept the sector productive and relevant.
The agricultural sector became the focal point of rural development programmes, which included initiatives such as the Green Revolution, which increased padi yields tremendously, the Federal Land Development Authority resettlement programme, which created jobs and lifted about 122,000 families out of poverty, and the One Village One Product programme which aided in product specialisation.
In recent times, economic diversification has shifted the focus from agriculture to manufacturing and, latterly, to the services sector. Rapid urbanisation as well as competition for land, labour and capital have adversely affected the agricultural sector. Its growth rate has been outpaced by that of the manufacturing and services sectors, and its share of the GDP and employment has shrunk.
The agricultural sector today features a vastly different landscape and requires different types of assistance from the government. Farm sizes range from globally-competitive plantations to subsistence farms that can fit two football fields.
For Malaysia to revitalise its agricultural sector, a comprehensive overhaul is required and adopting smart farming or precision agriculture is the way to move forward. Smart Farming, also known as the Third Green Revolution, refers to the application of information and communications technology in agriculture. Smart farming practices include the use of drones to carry out crop spraying, soil and field analysis, planting and crop monitoring.
Also worth considering is climate-smart agriculture (CSA). The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation says this approach “helps to guide actions needed to transform and reorient agricultural systems to effectively support development and ensure food security in a changing climate”. It emphasises productivity, adaptation and mitigation as interlinked elements towards a new approach in agriculture.
Notwithstanding the numerous investments made by the government to modernise the agricultural sector, there are challenges that need to be tackled if Malaysia is to adopt better farming practices and chief among them is the mentality of the farming community.
The first step is to raise awareness among farmers of the benefits of new farming technology. This is particularly challenging due to the fact that the average Malaysian farmer is 50 years old. Lured by the promise of employment and a modern lifestyle, many rural youths have relocating to urban centres. Given this demographic makeup, transferring new farming technology becomes a lengthy and complicated process.
It is pertinent to attract and retain youths within the farming industry, particularly those who are technology-savvy, by providing suitable employment opportunities in rural areas. By creating modern high-tech farms, establishing permanent food parks, building learning institutions for modern farming and forming an agriculture outsourcing service (AOS) such job opportunities can be created. With youth involvement, it would be easier to incorporate new farming technology and change farming culture.
Favourable financial schemes have to be expanded to enable farmers to upgrade and modernise their farms and the government has to encourage the establishment of AOS to help farmers put smart farming into practice.
A necessary step towards a comprehensive revolution in agriculture is creating a platform for stakeholders to communicate.
A smart partnership comprising policymakers, scientists, the private sector and the farming community is crucial to affect change by allowing the nexus of technological advancement, policymaking decisions, business acumen as well as the needs of farmers to coexist and coalesce.
In this regard, smart farming as well as CSA should be adopted in an action plan to modernise the agriculture industry as stated in the Eleventh Malaysia Plan.
The Malaysia Agricultural Development Authority has initiated pilot programmes, notably in the recent deployment of drones for crop spraying of more than 2,000ha of padi fields. An extension of such programmes should be considered for other crops.
The agriculture industry remains vital to Malaysia for a variety of reasons, in particular as a source of export earnings and supply of raw materials for industries, to ensure a degree of food security, to increase income levels in rural areas, to provide employment and as a new tourist attraction.
This article first appeared in New Straits Times on 18 September 2017.