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May 2024

Restructuring the rice industry can make us a major exporter

Malaysia’s rice sector may need to learn from the success of plantation crops. – NSTP/ MOHD ASRI SAIFUDDIN MAMAT

LETTERS: THE rice price issue has barely gone away and now another bombshell has dropped.

The planting of rice in the coming season is going to be curtailed. It has nothing to do with adverse weather, but rather the most fundamental part of the value chain: the planting material.

Reports of the poor availability of certified rice seeds have been making the rounds in the media. They are not just talking about the shortage but also the high price suppliers are charging for the certified seeds.

In the old days, farmers put aside a portion of their harvest as planting material for the following season. It worked well for generations.

We have always assumed that there are agencies tasked with taking care of the many stages in the value chain. The planting material stage is critical.

We know that much research has gone into producing high-yielding seeds. And there have been successes with disease- and pest-resistant seeds.

Research alone is not enough. We need to have competent nurseries to produce planting materials at the amount that is needed. It is the same in other agricultural sectors.

We are familiar with the situation in plantation crops, including oil palm and rubber.

The nursery operations of such crops are monitored. Any failure to secure the right planting material can translate into heavy financial losses.

Many are asking why our agricultural sector is not doing as well as our neighbour, Thailand, for example.

We produce almost the same crops as the Thais. But how are they able to export much of their produce?

Those among us who have lived abroad would testify that the tropical stuff in the shops there were from Thailand.

Not just the hot chillies, but also the petai and other tropical condiments.

If they cannot export them fresh, they sell them frozen. I remember we used to get frozen durians from Thailand in New York in the 1980s.

We may need to learn from our success in plantation crops. Some say our poor performance in the rest of agriculture has to do with the way we organise small farmers.

This may be true to some extent. Small farmers in Thailand are better supported in terms of planting materials, agronomic advisory and marketing. Their farmers’ cooperatives are also better managed.

Studies have revealed they also have better agricultural extension services.

Unlike the local system, their researchers are also the people directly involved in the extension work. They mix with the farmers.

There is also a lot of communication done through television and radio. This has now expanded into TikTok and the like.

Their cooperatives are involved with the processing and marketing of their produce.

Through such arrangements, their farmers are well compensated. That also explains why they do not have much problem attracting the young to farming.

I think it is time we considered overhauling our agribusiness system.

We can learn from the palm oil industry model. The Malaysian Palm Oil Board is run as a partnership between industry and government.

There is regular consultation on strategies not only for research and development, but also for marketing and infrastructure support.

We may want to restructure the rice industry along similar lines creating, for example, a Malaysian Rice Industry Board with representatives from industry and government.

The board can introduce incentives to attract private investments in rice production and downstream activities.

Small rice farmers can form cooperatives. They can partner with the bigger private sector rice companies to process and market their produce.

Let the price of rice be determined by market forces, but keep a close eye on cartels and hoarders.

Done properly, there is no reason why we cannot one day be a major exporter of rice.


Published Date: November 19, 2023

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