Malaysia’s famous dish, Nasi Lemak (Figure 6.1), translates from Malay to ‘oily rice’; referring to the rich coconut cream in which the rice is soaked. Lowland Malaysia has continuously high temperatures and, perhaps crucially, an absence of extremely low temperatures. Whilst peninsular and East Malaysian climate differ, East Malaysia being more affected by maritime systems, in general a hot and humid climate is the norm. This topic explores elements of agriculture in Malaysia including some primary agricultural outputs such as oil palm, rice and cocoa. In response to global climate change, as well as domestic demand within Malaysia, the possibility of transitioning to sustainability in respect of natural resources through mixed farming or permaculture is introduced.
Much of peninsular Malaysia consists of lithosols and shallow latisols of average fertility in steep mountainous settings (Figure 6.2 and Figure 6.3) considered, in the recent past, unsuitable for intensive agricultural development. Eastern Malaysia, separated from the peninsular by the South China Sea, consists of the states of Sarawak and Sabah whose two states occupy around a quarter of the island of Borneo.
The acid sulphate soils common to Southeast Asia, whilst perhaps not ideal, do not seriously hamper monocropping in Malaysia. Soil fertility and type is just one aspect of monocropping enterprises (Khanif and Salmijah, 1996) and must be artificially managed, whatever the soil type, in lieu of a natural system or a permaculture based system which emphasise balance and diversity. In general soil conditions and soil change is a complex and delicately sophisticated science (Hartemink, 2005).
Biological complexity, with rich, long-lasting and diverse yields can be temporarily substituted by managerial complexity with narrow but financially profitable yield at the expense of ecological diversity and environmental health.
Given its natural tropical climate Malaysia has, perhaps inevitably, become a hotbed for agroindustry; industries that are related to agricultural development. Historically, this may be linked to concentrations of financial wealth:
“…the important costs required for the pioneering of a new crop could only be assumed by foreign investors in search of highly profitable, thus risky, business opportunities. This pattern can actually be observed for a large number of cash crops first introduced by estate companies under highly favourable land and labour policies of colonial administrations for the allocation of concessions.” (Bissonnette and De Koninck, 2015, pp3-4).
Agricultural policies in the late twentieth century followed an ‘industrialisation’ tack in line with developed nations. This involved abandoning the previous focus on self-sufficiency in favour of commercialising disorganised smallholdings and simultaneously pursuing technological innovation in industrial agricultural process including genetic modification (Ismail, 2012). Malaysia’s internal approbation of Western style ‘modern’ agricultural practice over traditional approaches is perhaps exacerbated by adherence to neoliberal agricultural reform:
“The Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry is entrusted with the responsibility to transform the agrofood industry towards a modern and dynamic industry. Among the challenges faced is changing the public stigma that agriculture, particularly the agrofood industry is a backward an low-skilled sector.” (sic. Ministry Of Agriculture, 2014, p3).
Value added is financial profit subtracted from financial cost. Figure 6.6 shows how various elements of Malaysian agriculture have been leveraged for financial profit in recent years (cocoa has an average added value of 157 RM million over this period and thus does not feature at this scale).
Malaysian commercial crops are largely of the following types, in order of approximate total land use: oil palm, rubber, rice, cocoa, mixed horticulture, coconut (Ahmad, 2001). Agricultural diversity however, is not indicated by the increasing commercial agricultural output; the vast financial profit associated with oil palm has led it to dominate the agricultural vista in Malaysia to the exclusion of other crops, which are in decline (see Figure 6.7 and Figure 6.8).
Wong (2007, p3) notes three important drivers for academic resurgence of academic interest in agriculture after two decades of comparative neglect since the mid-eighties; the agro-biotechnology revolution; the rise of supermarkets and a growing awareness of the necessity to reduce poverty and preserve the environment. The remainder of this chapter examines some important commodities in the recent history of Malaysia.
Free trade agreements by ASEAN countries (Figure 6.9) affect global and regional response to natural resource selection (Acosta, 2000) and thus country strategy regarding which resources to pursue agriculturally. Especially critical to agricultural resource policy are Malaysia’s robust pursual of neoliberal reforms and cash crops (Bissonnette and De Koninck, 2015) and facilitation of land grabbing by multinational organisations (ISS, 2015). ASEAN countries are projected to hold 650 million people by 2020 and have per capita income (ranging over member states) between USD465 and USD37,597 (asean.org).
Per capita consumption of rice in Malaysia is around 82 Kg per year (Selamat and Mohd, 2009, p267) and Asia accounted for 90% of the 672 million metric tonnes of rice produced in the world as of 2010 (Suh, 2014, p74). Much of the rice grown in Malaysia originates from the 'Rice Bowl of Malaysia'; the state of Kedah including the island of Langkawi.
However, rice production has been limited for many years in Malaysia as most producers “are more interested in cash crops” than food crops (USDA, 2015); Malaysia produces 2% of the total milled rice production in South Eastern Asia (see Figure 6.11) though it has a very high yield per hectare under plantation.
In order to meet domestic demand Malaysia imports much of its rice consumed, from 594 million tonnes in 2000 to 799 million tonnes in 2007, with an associated increase in Malaysia’s rice import bill from RM700 million in 2000 to RM 10.1 billion in 2007 (Jamal et al. 2014, Department of Statistics, 2008 cited Applanaidu et al. 2014, p94). Climate change of the magnitude suggested as likely later in this chapter would have significant negative effects on what remains of rice cultivation in Malaysia as it is indicative of environmental instability affecting rice planting and maintenance (Vaghefi et al., 2011). Effects of air pollution (Ishii et al., 2004) weeds (Karim et al., 2004) and pests (Basit and Bhattacharyya, 2001) on Malaysian rice production are also ongoing issues related to both food security and environmental degradation. Rice pests are naturally kept under control in a biodiverse system (Ooi, 2015) wherein, for example, ladybird beetles (Coleoptera Coccinellidae) feed on eggs laid by rice stem borers.
Rice area in Malaysia in 2015/16 is expected to increase less than 1 percent (to a total of around 0.7 million hectares) from last year despite state incentives (USDA, 2015).
Introduced into Malaysia in 1778 though not cultivated in earnest until the nineteen sixties “The ideal climate for growing cocoa is hot, rainy, and tropical, with lush vegetation to provide shade for the cocoa trees.” (World Cocoa Foundation, 2015, p2 and Nair, 2010). Asia produces 17 percent of the world’s cocoa (see Figure 6.13), principally in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.
However, cultivation of cocoa is a delicate process and subject to changes in weather patterns with related changes in disease and insect presence (diseases like Witch’s Broom, cocoa swollen shoot virus, vascular streak dieback, black pod, and so on, Nair, 2010). Cocoa has traditionally been supplied overwhelmingly by small family-run farms as opposed to agribusiness that dominates many other food commodities.
The value chain of cocoa consists of growing (principally within 15-20 degrees of latitude from the equator); harvesting (removing pods and splitting to obtain beans) and fermenting and drying before packaging, marketing, roasting, pressing and chocolate making. Europe and the US, as primary manufacturers of chocolate products, have traditionally been the main consumers of cocoa, yet recently China’s demand has been increasing steadily; in the three years between 2008 and 2011, for example, China moved from the 15th to 9th largest importer of cocoa powder and cake (Figure 6.15).
Cocoa is a sunset industry in Malaysia, with total cultivated area falling precipitously since a peak around 1990 (see Figure 6.16).
The coconut, a wonder fruit known as ‘the tree of life’ is also rapidly departing Malaysia in favour of the ubiquitous palm, declining by around 7000 hectares of area planted annually between 2001 and 2007 to approximately 110,000 hectares in 2007 (Siriphanich et al. 2011). As a nutritious part of human diet coconut remains important in Malaysia, 67% of the coconut grown being consumed domestically in the form of fresh coconut, tender coconut, oil and processed cream powders (Montenegro, 1985; Siriphanich et al. 2011).
Whilst many times less important financially to Malaysia than the palm that is eclipsing it, coconut is the fourth most important industrial crop by area after palm, rubber and rice paddy (Montenegro, 1985) though contributed to export earnings in 2006 to the tune of less than a tenth of one percent (0.08%, Sivapragasam, 2008). Coconut has potential to produce biodiesel from coconut waste yet this capacity has not yet been developed significantly (Sulaiman et al., 2013).
Elaeis guineensis, or oil palm, originates from West Africa where evidence suggests it has been in use for thousands of years. In 1917, the first commercial-scale oil palm plantation in Malaysia was developed in Tenamaran Estate, Selangor, after the plant was introduced to Malaysia by the British as an ornamental plant in 1871, the progeny of Dutch plants cultivated in Indonesia from around 1848 (Awalludin et al. 2015). Palm oil plantations are widely spread throughout Malaysia (Basiron, 2007; Pinso and Vun, 2000).
The disciplines of biochemistry, chemical and mechanical engineering are used in the processing of palm oil, and plantations in Malaysia have provided opportunity for large-scale and fully mechanised processing. In general the process (Figure 6.19) involves the recovery of fresh fruit bunches from the plantations; the sterilizing and threshing of those bunches to free the fruit; and the mashing and pressing out of crude palm oil (FAO, 2010).
In Malaysia today, palm oil plantations occupy around 5 million hectares. This is nearly three-quarters of total agricultural land and approximately 12% of Malaysia's total land area (Mukherjee and Sovacool, 2014, p8).
Palm oil shares some production fundamentals with rubber, part of the explanation for its widespread adoption in Malaysia, which was accustomed to rubber production as examined in Forest Life. Palm oil’s versatility, being a feedstock as well as a biofuel, and its economic benefits, however, are perhaps the key drivers of this industry.
Both crude and refined palm oil (known as primary and secondary respectively) can be thought of as commodities due to the numerous substitution possibilities on the world vegetable oil market, a market for which, in the early 1990’s, Malaysia provided around 60% of the palm oil (Fold, 1998). Palm oil is used extensively in products such as cconvenience food, soap, chips, cosmetics, bread, chocolate and biscuits and its usage is driving species dependent on forest habitat to extinction (Paterson et al. 2015. BBC Panorama: Dying for a Biscuit, 2010). The current high global demand for palm oil is also stimulated by the demand for biofuel for motorised vehicles, as institutions implementing ostensibly ‘green’ policies rush to meet demand set by policy. One such directive, for example, is 2009/28/EC, a European Union mandate, requiring that 10% of its transport fuel by 2020 be from renewable sources, mainly biofuels.
Palm oil yield has increased from around 3.5 tonnes per hectare in 1993 to around 4.25 tonnes per hectare in2012 (USDA, 2012). Reclaiming waste, or palm solid residues (left after palm oil extraction) can be a source of renewable energy ( Hosseini and Wahid 2014) and in general the plant is being used for all manner of industrial processes through thermochemical conversion, liquefaction and so on (Awalludin et al, 2015). Research on development of new varieties of oil palm less vulnerable to climate change is earnestly in progress (Paterson, 2015).
Mukherjee and Sovacool (2014) present a case for palm-oil planning related to three major sustainability considerations: greenhouse gas emissions; changes in land use; and forestry, biodiversity, soil and water implications. These three are contextualised by four socio-economic considerations: food versus fuel; smallholder production; land ownership; and price volatility. In exploring sustainability, as defined as long-term ecological viability and socio-economic equity, Mukherjee and Sovacool (2014, p.4) note the straightforward conflict between sustainability and the current palm oil interest: “Lowland tropical forests teeming with the highest concentration of insects, amphibians, reptiles and mammals are also considered to be the most suitable for large-scale oil palm cultivation because of rich soils, plentiful rainfall and marginal slopes”.
In a commercially controlled environment, it is possible to consider a particular activity sustainable provided constant artificial support is provided to the system. Oil palm is moderately tolerant to soil acidity, as opposed to cocoa, for example, and so has been an ideal candidate for commercial cropping in Malaysia, with proper water management practices inducing sustainable yield (Shamshuddin et al., 2014). However, the term ‘sustainable’ depends upon the spatial and temporal scales examined; ecological stability involving elements such as mycorrhizal fungi, relationships with indigenous people and animals and forestry practices promoting soil-enriching indigenous-tree species perhaps requires a more holistic approach (Sakurai, 2006).
Figure 6.23 Orangutan: Deforested Habitat. Public Domain.
Wholesale replacement of all agricultural products with profitable palm oil is now a prevailing trend in Honduras and Indonesia, where impoverished smallholders are following Malaysia’s example, being rapidly provided financial incentives and structures as well as means of mechanisation of palm oil production despite clear environmental degradation (Craven, 2010). Malaysia and Indonesia produce more than 80% of all palm oil and contain over 80% of Southeast Asia's remaining primary forest. The ecological impact of oil palm “depends crucially on the extent to which its expansion causes deforestation” (Fitzherbert et al. 2008, p543). However, “aggressive public relations campaigns undertaken by the oil palm industry to promote public acceptance of palm oil and to dismiss the concerns of conservation biologists and environmentalists” pose significant barriers to the curbing of the domination of palm (Koh and Wilcove, 2009, p67).
Although Maalysia plays a significant role in supplying palm oil used in biodiesel production, Malaysia produced negligible quantities of biofuels in 2013 (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2014)
Fold (1998) asserts that state regulation, industrial governance and ethnic inequality have been cause and effect of a lack of a balanced approach related to the agricultural industry in Malaysia, having its roots in socio-economic issues arising from earlier tin and rubber exploitation. As revenue from export commodities slumped in the 1980’s so Malaysia established heavy industries producing iron and steel, cement, paper, cars and petro-chemicals. The industrialisation of agriculture followed a similar ideological tack. Socioeconomically, Malaysia is struggling to reduce the gap between the very rich and the very poor: "In Malaysia, although smallholders’ contribution in agriculture sector is significant, they constitute the bulk of low income groups in the country. They suffer the most due to uneconomic land size, price decline in commodities like rubber, cocoa and oil palm, rising production cost and persistent low productivity and income." (Ahmad, 2001, p4).
The idea of mixed farming seeks to bridge the gap between commercial organisations and smallholders. Whilst economies of scale can be realised by large commercial originations, smallholders are able to manage smaller areas via a mixed approach, wasting less space, ensuring more biodiversity in the area and yielding a wider variety of natural produce. An example of integration is integrated rice–duck farming, whereby ducks feed on weeds and insects which are attracted to rice plants, fertilizing rice plants in the process (Suh, 2014). However, in Malaysia, this a goal with more potential than reality (Hansen, 1996). Whilst some small steps have been taken towards such integrated approaches in Asia as a whole, Malaysia stands out amongst Asian countries as pursuing a commercialized, monocropping strategy over forms of mixed cropping or permaculture, a more sustainable form of agricultural resource production (Fergusonand Lovell, 2014; Rothe, 2014).
Crops for the Future (CFF, 2015) cites the UK Global Food Security programme as recording that on the current emissions pathway set by policies and plans of major countries “…a rise of more than 4°C appears to be as likely as not by 2050.” This enormous shift in average temperature will be accompanied by greater extremes, both in temperature and associated climatic conditions. Four crops, note CFF, are responsible for over 60% of the world’s food: maize, wheat, rice and soybean. Given the increasingly hostile, volatile and unpredictable environmental conditions it is critical to urgently diversify away from a monoculture paradigm in order to feed both humans and their support systems (livestock, energy systems, food production systems). Sir John Beddington, former UK government chief scientific advisor, describes a situation whereby given the expected 50% increase in demand for food and energy, and the 30% increase in demand for water predicted by 2030, conflict and mass migration will occur as people flee from the worst affected regions. In order to prevent the ‘perfect storm’ described by Beddington CFF propose several facets requiring urgent consideration (see Figure 6.26).
Crops for the Future, where more information can be found, is this week’s recommended excursion. Approach CFF or visit the CFF website for details of tours and events. An alternative excursion can be made to the KL Chocolate Museum.