While all focus is on higher oil prices, not enough attention has been given to higher food prices. Now, it has been suggested that the higher prices of food (and fuel) are being driven by extraordinary speculation in commodities by index-linked speculators. These speculators are said to be exploiting a “swaps-loophole” in US banking regulations, which allow certain huge investment banks to act as intermediaries and dealers in entering into index-linked futures contracts, which are quite unlike the normal futures hedging, where positions are regularly unwound.
So how do we tackle higher food prices? Food security and self-sufficiency will help. There is no reason why each state in the federation cannot be self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables. We have fertile soil and a favourable climate. For instance, Penang once had thriving vegetable farms on the island; now a lot of our veg comes from Cameron Highlands. Penang still has fruit orchards in Balik Pulau and paddy fields on the mainland. These farmers need our support. The state could encourage more organic farming – even though agriculture might come under federal purview.
The mainstream corporate approach is to talk about increasing corporate involvement in agriculture, including vertical integration i.e. corporate control of the entire food chain from the control and supply of seeds to food processing and branding to the sale of these food products in hypermarkets. This is what Sime Darby wants to do.
In the process, farmers are reduced from autonomous independent decision-makers to contract workers. And they become increasingly reliant on the large corporations for everything from the purchase of seeds, chemical fertilisers and pesticides – which, along with the price of oil, has become more expensive – and distribution.
But there is another alternative that has not been tried enough in Malaysia. And that is the path towards sustainable and ecologically friendly farming, which potentially has a huge market given how worried people are about GM food and pesticides in their food products.
Now some might say that organic or ecologically friendly agriculture is not practical. Isn’t it time we devote more research into this area? We had an Agricultural University once, but Mahathir changed that to University Putra Malaysia.
Why not take a closer look at three enterprising initiatives from around Asia?
The Khao Kwan Foundation in Thailand
This group focuses on developing know-how about sustainable agriculture, providing technical support for farmers to convert to organic farming, and disseminating knowledge and news. Several of its programmes are helping low-income farmers to take advantage of the growing demand for organic produce, stressing the higher prices that they attract and the many other benefits that come from organic farming.
The Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development (Masipag) in the Philippines:
Masipag is a farmer-led network of people’s organisations, non-government organisations and scientists working towards the sustainable use and management of biodiversity through farmers’ control of genetic and biological resources, agricultural production and associated knowledge.
The Deccan Development Society in India:
Since 1996, they have designed and managed a radical, pathbreaking Alternative Public Distribution System (PDS), based on the principles of local production, local storage and local distribution to create a series of Community Grain Funds. Through this programme, they have reversed the trend of increasing centralisation and the tyranny of chosen foodgrains. Participating in this Alternative PDS programme, about 3000 women in 50 villages have enhanced the productivity of over 3500 acres of land, mostly fallow or highly marginal, to grow more than a million kilograms of extra sorghum in their communities every year….
The women’s groups have shown that even the very poor farmers, once in control of their agriculture and natural resources, with a bit of help and access to financial resources, can feed themselves and the non-food producing members of their community. They have proved that even in some of the most degraded land areas of the world, people do not have to seek out Genetically Modified crops or multinationals to feed them.
So you can see that people elsewhere in Asia are exploring alternatives in real, practical ways to promote food security in an ecologically sustainable way, often using organic farming. Are there similar comparable grassroots farmer-centred initiatives in Malaysia?