Malaysian Agriculture – amongst the best in the world !

KC Chang

We have 5 million hectares of oil palm. If, like the Thais, we are able to produce their fruits and not grow oil palm, 10,000 hectares of each type would saturate the country. What are we going to do with the rest of our land? Yet, it is true that we do not grow much food. Is it Malaysia's fault? I don’t think so.

Many brickbats have been thrown at Malaysian agriculture - at how bad it is not being able to produce food. As an agriculturalist, I would like to defend it as I think that it is amongst the best in the world. Basically, Malaysians are quite competent people and will do a good job if left to it e.g., look at how good the country was before UMNO messed it up. And agriculture in Malaysia is the least messed up economic sector by the politicians because if they want money, better and simpler to get shares in, say, Public Bank than a plot in the jungle which they'll then have difficulty selling to realize the cash ... and get into trouble for doing so as did the cousins of Taib in Sarawak.

Whatever crop the country has deigned to grow has produced just about the highest yield in the world - rice, jagung, cocoa, rubber, oil palm. Yes, including the food crops. In our granary areas, we get 7 t/ha for rice, while the Thais get only 1 t/ha, and yet they get the kudos of having better agriculture in being able to produce more food crops – rice, jagung (corn), mango, longan, etc. What is not said is that the Thais have about 100× our area in rice and produce only about 5x as much. I think that if God were to offer the Thais a choice of Malaysian vs. Thai agriculture, they would choose ours without blinking an eye.

We have 5 million hectares of oil palm. If, like the Thais, we are able to produce their fruits and not grow oil palm, 10,000 hectares of each type would saturate the country. What are we going to do with the rest of our land? Yet, it is true that we do not grow much food. Is it Malaysia's fault? I don’t think so.

The agriculture of every country is constrained by its climate and, of course, economics. In Form 3 basic geography, we learn that there is no discernible drought at the equator although some times of the year are wetter/drier than others. As we move away from the equator (both N and S), more and more marked wet/dry periods occur, culminating in the great deserts on the Tropics of Cancer/Capricorn. Even in Penang/Kedah (only about 4o – 5o N), there is already an annual dry season in January/February, although not very serious.

This hot and humid clime throughout the year is ideal for plant growth (although some, like apples and pears, will not fruit because there is no cold stimulus to trigger their flowering process). Thus, all the crops we have tried have given very high yields, but we settled on oil palm, rubber, cocoa and coffee because they give the highest returns and are the least bother, e.g., tree crops, plant once in 30 years; annual crops, plant 2x or 3x a year. Thus, all the world over, in the humid tropics (say, 10oN - 10oS), the agriculture is tree crops, which is technically horticulture.

Our continuously hot and wet climate is ideal for oil palm which cannot stand drought for high yields although the palm will survive very harsh conditions. Thus, Thailand cannot grow oil palm (economically) except in the very south, and even then their yields are generally not high. In the middle and north country, where the dry season is 6 or even 9 months, it can only grow ‘drought-escape’ crops – in the 3 or 6 months of the rainy season, the country is as wet as any other so any crop can grow; but the crop must start and finish during the rains to escape the drought. Hence, their high production of rice and jagung ...  because they can’t grow anything else!

Another, possibly even more important, reason for tree crops is potential environmental damage. In Malaysia, it rains, on average, every 2 – 3 days, and the rainfall is often heavy and very erosive. In the 1980’s there was a housing boom, and there were so many (uncovered) construction sites that there were complaints throughout the country of the environmental damage wrought – rivers turning brown from sediment loss, landslides, blocked drains, etc. Now, at any one time, what would be the national area of uncovered building sites? I don’t know, but suspect only about 1,000 hectares (about 4 square miles).

To grow any meaningful food crops for the country, say jagung, there would need to be 500,000 hectares, and this land would be uncovered (during in-between crops and the young crops) for half the year, every year. In contrast, tree crops, once established, will protect the soil for the next 30 years. They’ll also have to be replanted eventually, of course, and it may take a year to establish full ground cover from felling the previous crop (by cover crops/weeds, not by the tree crop itself which will take longer for full canopy cover), or about 12 days in the year.

All this talk about insurance is fine, which is what food security is all about. But the insurance can be overdone. In the extreme, it can be like a person spending all his money on insurance, and having nothing to live on. Of course, it will be Happy Day (for his family, not him) when he dies and the millions flow in. But the logic of this is clearly dubious. I think the 60 – 70% self-sufficiency in rice seems reasonably sensible. In a war, we suffer a bit by having to eat some sweet potato which won’t kill us. Even tapioca with its cyanide content shouldn’t do us in! In peace, which is most times, we get to buy our Ferraris.

Actually, the food insecurity goes further than rice. We also cannot produce protein. Officially, we produce only 10 - 20% of our beef, mutton and milk, but are 'self-sufficient' in chicken, eggs and pork. But the 'self-sufficiency' is predicated on a 'screwdriver plant' operation - we bring the chicks/piglets and (imported) feed to one place and 'screw' them together. If in war we cannot import rice, we would equally likely not be able to import jagung (the base for most animal feed) too. So, there goes our protein ... which may not be a bad thing, actually. If all we have is plain rice, then arguably, plain sweet potato tastes better.

We cannot produce beef/mutton/milk because we are too hot. If we are too hot we don’t want to eat – can you eat immediately after playing badminton? – and if we don’t eat we can’t grow. Cattle are large animals, and by their sheer bulk and lower surface area (= skin) compared to humans, have difficulty dissipating heat.

The naked human is comfortable at 80oF, but the equilibrium temperature of a cow is about freezing. So the continuously hot cattle won’t eat much and grow in Malaysia. Under ‘good’ management in Malaysia, a cow/bull will put on 0.25 kg/day. The run-of-the-mill equivalent in a temperate country, grazing roadside grass will put on 1 kg/day. It is a physical problem, and I don’t know why the government agricultural authorities are wasting their time seeking biological solutions – testing new breeds. It’ll never work unless the cattle are human size.

Sheep and goats are smaller, but have thick coats so the heat problem remains. Pigs are about the size of humans (slaughter at 100 kg liveweight), so ideal size-wise, but we can’t produce their feed. Poultry are smaller and also ideal for our climate, but again we can’t produce their feed.

There are a lot of myths in Malaysian agriculture, and to formulate policy, we first have to see through the fallacies. For example, Sarawak is reputed to grow the best pepper because of its suitable soils and climate. I pondered this for 30 years before finding out that it grows pepper because it has no roads! Same reason why the Golden Triangle is so hooked on growing opium.

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