Food self-sufficiency vital in tackling rising living costs

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Fresh fruit: We need to raise nutritional awareness

Malaysia should emphasise the development of the food and fisheries sectors to ease the food bill burden felt by many Malaysians, writes Benedict Lopez.

Chat with ordinary people anywhere today and their main anxiety is the spiralling cost of living. Not only has inflation taken its toll on their pockets but the salaries earned by many have not kept abreast with the hikes in prices of goods and services.

Many believe their standard of living will plummet as prices continue to rise. They feel the inflationary trend is unlikely to level off. Fixed-income earners seem to be the main casualty, and many are feeling the pinch.

Alas, the people who will be most affected are the working and middle classes and senior citizens, particularly the pensioners.

Carry out a survey at supermarkets, mini-markets, wet markets, restaurants, retail outlets and even hawker stalls, and you will notice the higher prices. If at all prices have not increased, then the quantity on offer has definitely been reduced.

The prices of essential items like petrol, potatoes, meat, vegetables and other household essentials have gradually increased over the last year. I make it a point to take note of the prices at different retail establishments.

Photograph: Benedict Lopez

Also concerning for many are the higher bus, train and taxi fares, which have taken a good portion of people’s monthly income, especially those who commute to work daily.

When I was in Stockholm from 2010-2014, a commuter could purchase a monthly Access Card for only SEK790 (RM350) per month. This card gives unlimited travel on the underground trains, commuter trains, buses, trams and ferries. Can’t we not emulate Stockholm in this respect? It will definitely go a long way in alleviating the financial burden on the less fortunate.

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It is becoming increasingly difficult for even most middle class families to buy a house or an apartment within the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. So they have to buy or rent out houses or apartments in nearby towns like Rawang, Klang and Kajang. I know of many working in Kuala Lumpur who commute daily from places as far as Seremban.

I come from a middle class family. We lived a reasonably good quality of life in the 1960s, despite my late father being the only breadwinner in the family. We resided in government quarters in Cochrane Road, where the monthly rent was only RM7.

Today, as I drive through Cochrane Road and its vicinity, all the quarters have been demolished, and the areas where many civil servants used to stay are beyond recognition, having yielded to infrastructure development.

Civil servants today are not fortunate to be provided with the same type of quarters like my father and his peers were – and they paid only a paltry sum in rent.

Even my alma mater, La Salle Peel Road, is now history. It saddens me to see that the school which I attended, and have so many fond memories of, no longer exists – memories not only of the times spent with friends, but also of the pranks played by my cousin who was also studying in the same school for a year before being transferred to La Salle Petaling Jaya.

On many Saturdays, I used to accompany my late mother whenever she went to the wet market in Pudu. She used to buy groceries for an entire week for our family of five. The cost? Only about RM30-RM40 back then. Inflation was virtually unheard of in the 1960s.

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Not only did we have a reasonably good quality of life, my father even managed to buy a house in Bangsar Park. Many of my father’s successors in the civil service today cannot expect to provide the same quality of life for their families, like my father did for us.

Those who have been hit most are the city folk, who now have to dig deep into their pockets to make ends meet – or do without certain food items that are not even luxuries.

Malaysians these days have to tighten their belts to make ends meet. Many middle and working class people today have to work more than one job to provide for a decent life for their families.

Food prices at restaurants have been hiked. At some ordinary restaurants and eateries, a decent meal costs no less than RM10. My contractor-cum-handyman, who does all the minor repairs in my home, told me that prices of building materials have climbed.

Malaysia now focuses on high-end manufacturing operations, artificial intelligence, robotics, automation and a modern services sector. This may be necessary for us to become a developed economy – but where is our focus in ensuring food self-sufficiency?

In 2015, Malaysia spent RM45bn on imports of fresh and frozen fruit, vegetables and meat from 120 countries. A high import bill is a serious concern for our country, and the government must take concrete measures to reduce our dependence on food imports.

We must strive to be self-sufficient in food. In the event of an emergency, what matters most will be our periuk nasi, and not the dazzle of our modernity. It is time we revive the Green Book plan of the 1970s, as this will go a long way towards reducing the prices of essential items like vegetables.

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Malaysia should learn from countries like Denmark and Norway, which are renowned nations in food and fisheries. Denmark, with a population of around 5.5m, produces five times more food than required for its people. The Danes have been successful in developing a state-of-the-art food sector completely along the value-chain, with research and development, integrated farming and manufacturing operations.

Despite having a population of only 5m people, Norway is among the world’s foremost seafood producers. Norwegian fishermen catch more than 200 different types of fish, which is exported to more than 150 countries. Norway’s success story is as a result of the collaborative efforts of industry, non-governmental organisations and research institutes.

Malaysia has to emphasise the development of the food and fisheries sectors, alongside vital objectives in other areas that are essential for the nation to become a developed and high-income nation.

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. An eternal optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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Joe Fernandez
22 Dec 2017 12.40am

If the government stops “overprinting” the RM, among others, prices will stop moving up drastically.