If desert nation-state Qatar can be 100% self-sufficient in dairy, so can we. 

MALAYSIA is a food-insecure nation. This fact flies in the face of abundance – at Ramadan bazaars, buffet tables and the food waste in our landfills, which reached more than 16,000 tonnes in 2019.  

Last year, Malaysia ranked 39th out of 113 countries in the global food security index (GFSI). The rankings measure food affordability, availability, quality and safety, including “natural resources and resilience” to assess a country’s exposure to the impacts of climate change.  

Malaysia came eighth in the Asia-Pacific region and second in Southeast Asia behind Singapore. Our southern neighbour with only 1% of land available for food production and lacking in natural resources relies on a complex global supply chain to ensure food security for its 5.7 million residents. Malaysia, on the other hand, has 800,000ha for agro-food and yet cannot feed itself. 

No nation can afford to be complacent when it comes to food security and the urgency is compounded by events in Europe and increasingly, the climate crisis. On 28 March, the head of the United Nations World Food Programme warned that the war in Ukraine is creating an agricultural crisis not seen since World War II. Ukraine and Russia produce 30% of the world’s supply of wheat and 20% of its maize. Russia and its ally, Belarus, are also among the top three potash – used as fertiliser – producers in the world. The war’s impact on agriculture is not just skyrocketing food prices but the world risks famine, destabilisation of countries and mass migrations, warns WFP.  

Even before the war started in February, the global food supply chain was buckling under the strain of two years of Covid and dealing with natural disasters, such as droughts and flooding. Disruptions in supply chains pushed up transport cost and commodity prices. The ongoing conflict will only escalate global hunger, poverty and worsen inflation.  

The Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that the food price index reached an all-time high in February, up by almost 20% compared with a year ago. In Malaysia, the consumer price index (CPI) increased 2.2% to 125.2 in February 2022 from 122.5 in the same month of the preceding year, driven mainly by the increase in food inflation. 

A food security problem could turn easily into a national security issue. Malaysia’s agricultural sector accounts for only 7% of GDP (2019 figures) and with a relatively small population, it is still unable to self-sufficient in basic food production. The self-sufficiency level of major food commodities of rice, vegetables, fruits, beef and milk stood at 63%, 44.4%, 78.2%, 22.3% and 63% in 2019. We rely heavily on imports to feed ourselves and our foodstuff import bill hit RM51.4 billion in 2019 compared with RM50.14 billion in 2018.

The National Food Policy Action Plan 2021-2025 (DSMN) is the strategy to secure our future food systems. It places heavy emphasis on digital transformation to ensure the sector can meet future demands. The goal is to forge a resilient, inclusive, competitive and sustainable agro-food sector that is prepared to mitigate and manage food security crises and disruptions of agro-food value chains.

The urgency is compounded by global warming with experts already warning that last year’s “once-in-a-century” floods will become increasingly a norm. The agro-food sector recorded losses of more than RM67 million from December’s flooding. The cost of such natural disasters and their impact on food production will be more severe.

Qatari food-security success  

One unlikely nation from which we can learn about food self-sufficiency is Qatar. As one of the most water-stressed nations in the world, it offers some important lessons on the nexus between food security and national security. 

On 5 June, 2017, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt imposed an air and maritime blockade against Qatar – ostensibly over Doha’s support for terrorism. The Gulf neighbours effectively strangled Qatar’s food supply lines overnight but while the blockade was designed to “punish” Doha, it had the opposite effect. It pushed Qatar further away from the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf and created a more independent nation, which has spent the last five years transforming its food and resource security. 

Before the blockade, Qatar imported nearly 40% of its goods and services through Saudi Arabia. All its fresh fruits and vegetables were also imported but the blockade forced it to hasten its economic diversification efforts. The country – remarkably – is now self-sufficient in dairy when it once relied on imports for 72% of its supplies. A company called Baladna isnow one of the largest cattle farms in the region.  

It started with 4,000 dairy cows in 2017 and today, has more than 20,000 cows housed in special “cool” sheds. Cows are milked daily using the most advanced rotary milking system to provide a wide selection of dairy products. The farm is also open to the public with schoolchildren touring the milking parlours. Two years after it was set up, Baladna exported its products to Afghanistan, Yemen and Oman. Born out of a blockade, the company ensured that Qatar went from being dependent on dairy imports to 100% milk self-sufficiency. Baladna has also exported its model to Malaysia and will begin operations here in July.  

Qatar’s National Food Security Strategy (2018-23) outlines five main pillars: international trade and logistics, local self-sufficiency, strategic stocks, local markets and supply chains, and research and development. The production of vegetablesincreased from 66,000 tonnes in 2018 to about 103,000 tonnes, a 41% self-sufficiency rate, with the target set to reach 70% self-sufficiency rate in 2023.  

The Qatari example shows that if there’s political will to act, it is possible to transform our agro-food sector into a more resilient, inclusive, sustainable and competitive one while striving to “leave no one behind” within the Sustainable Development Goal framework. 

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