Malaysia’s disappearing rice farmers

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The Northern Corridor Economic Region, aimed at transforming the agriculture sector, was unveiled on 30 July 2007. With the invasion of large corporations into the sector and the introduction of hightech methods and biotechnology, rice farming is set to become more an industry than a way of life. Jennifer Mourin and Anne Haslam discuss the threat of genetically engineered rice in an interview with Fomca's Indrani Thuraisingham.

Rice farming is becoming more an industry with the involvement of the private sector than a way of life.  With the introduction of hi-technology on farms including the introduction of biotechnology in the country, our concern is that it might be a matter of time before Malaysians end up eating genetically engineered  rice,” notes Indrani Thuraisingham, Chief Executive Officer of the Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations (Fomca).

She is extremely concerned about the state of rice farmers and rice cultivation in Malaysia. The mechanisation of rice farms has been taking place since 1997 in a bid by the Government to revitalise the agricultural sector, but the move has resulted in the rural-urban migration of small farmers as there had been no concerted programme to absorb them into any other sector.

Indrani, who is also Secretary General of Era Consumer, said this shift had resulted in dwindling numbers of agricultural workers and rice farmers.  She elaborated that in 1995 there were 1.5 million farmers and, by 2010, the number was expected fall to 980,000.  The number of rice farmers dropped significantly by about 47 per cent from 296,000 farmers in 1999 to 155,961 in 2005.

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Indrani said Fomca’s concern was for the safety of consumers who have a right to information and the right to a healthy environment: “There was a push by biotech companies to invest in the country; however we are unsure of these kinds of technology and the safety aspects as there is no assessment done on the risks to health and the environment.”

Risks

She said Fomca was pushing for the implementation of the Bio-Safety Law which would regulate genetically modified (GMO) food being sold in Malaysia.  She said that Malaysia was importing soya beans from the United States but because there are no labelling laws, people have no idea if the soya is genetically modified (GM). Between 65 and 75 per cent of soya beans in the US are GM products.

“We have a right to know what we are consuming and whether it is GM, and the risks involved in consuming this kind of food,” she stated, adding that this information was critical in view of the fact that the incidence of diseases such as cancer and diabetes was high in Malaysia.

She said that the Week of Rice Action (Wora) was important for the consumers’ movement to educate consumers on this issue as rice was the staple diet of the people.  Rice should be produced in a culturally suitable way and consumers should have information on genetically engineered (GE) rice, which may be introduced in the not-so-distant future.

Wora 2007 brought together farmers, rural communities, and other sectors of society to celebrate and protect rice culture.  Launched on March 13 in Bangladesh, the main Wora events were held in in 13 countries across Asia from 29 March to 4 April 2007 – an unprecedented mobilisation of Asians “Celebrating and Protecting Rice Culture”. A key feature of Wora is its one-million signature campaign calling on policy-makers to take immediate steps to save the rice of Asia.  

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Indrani said in conjunction with Wora, Fomca was looking at the Safe Food component of the five rice pillars with respect to consumers.  It had slotted two seminars focusing on GE rice on 5-6 April to coincide with the launch of National Consumers Day.  

Labelling and food sovereignty

She said that discussions with academia, policy makers and enforcement agencies would highlight the importance of labelling and adopting a precautionary stance in using new technologies even though the biotechnology companies are saying there are no apparent risks.

She said the academia had an important role to play in carrying out independent research in GM technologies, whilst policy makers should also make decisions in allowing labelling and regulations to ensure that the risk assessment is done in a fair manner and that ultimately consumers can make  informed choices and decisions.

“Our rice farmers must be protected at all costs for the sake of national sovereignty and of national security.  We must have our own food producers produce our own food domestically. We cannot allow other countries to dictate to us especially on matters of food, particularly rice which is our staple food,” stated Indrani in relation to Malaysia’s free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations with the United States.

Indrani concluded by saying she hoped that the Malaysian Government would keep to its stance to continue to protect the rice farmers by not lowering the trade tariffs as the US wanted Malaysia to import more rice.

Jennifer Mourin and Anne Haslam work for the Pesticide Action Network’s Asia Pacific regional office in Penang 

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