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The climate crisis turns up the heat on Malaysia’s food security

The climate crisis turns up the heat on Malaysia’s food security

LAST December, Malaysia witnessed a phenomenon that is supposed to only happen once in 100 years: some parts of the country received one month’s average rainfall all in just one day, an incident that led to massive floods.

We were also informed that the nine years between 2013 and 2021 were all among the 10 hottest ever recorded.

In recent times, “rare” extreme weather events have become increasingly regular in Malaysia, indicating the troubling state of the climate crisis.

This was underscored by the second instalment of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) published in February 2022, which warned that “nowhere on Earth would escape the dire impacts from the rising temperatures and increasingly extreme weather”, including heatwaves, droughts, floods and rising sea levels. Earlier IPCC reports had already identified South-East Asia as among the world’s most at-risk regions for extreme climate events.

The third instalment of the IPCC’s AR6, released on April 4, highlighted that global temperatures are still rising, with the window of opportunity to prevent the worst impacts of extreme climate change rapidly closing. According to the report, urgent climate action needs to be taken to keep global temperatures from rising 1.5°C beyond the pre-industrial average, including the rapid transformation of all sectors of the global economy, from energy and transport to buildings and food.

In Malaysia, the growing frequency of unpredictable and extreme weather has directly affected our agricultural sector, painting a potentially distressing future for the country’s long-term food security.

Malaysia currently ranks 39th of the 113 countries included in the Global Food Security Index. It is second to Singapore in South-East Asia. We produce 60%-70% of Malaysia’s rice demand. We rely on imports for the remainder. The country’s population is expected to grow by 70% to 100% by 2050.

In October last year, Agriculture and Food Industries Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ronald Kiandee said Malaysia’s food security has been affected by the increase in the average annual rainfall and frequency of dry and hot weather over the past few decades; more than 40,000ha of padi fields nationwide were destroyed by floodwaters between 2017 and 2021. Food production has also been affected by major environmental crises. For example, Malaysia’s agriculture and agro-based industry suffered a RM299mil loss in the aftermath of the 2014/15 floods.

Malaysia should be prepared for the worst case scenarios that may occur as a result of global warming. According to the Asean State of Climate Change Report 2021, a 2°C increase in temperature could cause a decline of rice yields by one tonne per hectare. Malaysia’s rice yields could see a decline of between -5.9% and -30.9% in different areas by 2050.

In response to the threat of food insecurity brought about by climate change, the government announced the National Food Security Policy Action Plan 2021-2025, to ensure the sustainability of the country’s food supply at all times, especially in the face of unexpected situations. It will address all four dimensions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation: access, availability, consumption, stability, and sustainability.

Lower crop production

Climate change affects the growth of agriculture crops, and recent erratic weather patterns, such as extreme floods and heatwaves, have had a direct impact on Malaysia’s ability to produce food.

Dr Wan Fazilah Fazlil Ilahi, from Universiti Putra Malaysia’s (UPM) department of agricultural technology, says that changes in climate factors such as temperature, sun radiation, wind, rainfall and humidity will affect plants’ evapotranspiration (evaporation and transpiration of water from the plant into the atmosphere).

“Needing to survive, the plants have to adapt with the erratic climate. This adaptation may interrupt the plant’s growth, which in some cases may reduce yield because of plant stress,” she explains.

There must be a unified effort to encourage the development of more resilient crops, says Wan Fazilah. — Pic providedWan Fazilah says that there must be a united effort to encourage the growth of more resilient crops. — Pic provided

Wan Fazilah warns Malaysians that if they don’t take action, Malaysia will face insufficient food supplies in the long-term. Malaysia will need to rely more heavily on imported agricultural products.

To avoid such an outcome, it is necessary to make a concerted effort to encourage the cultivation of more resilient crops.

“The government, agriculture authorities, non-government bodies as well as research universities must focus on finding new ways of either managing or developing new plant varieties that can adapt to climate change,” says Wan Fazilah, adding that the findings from such research should be tested and applied to all farm levels from small to large-scale.

“Furthermore, climate prediction models can be used to help farmers plan their future planting management. Such predictions have the potential to empower authorities to make their own assessments of the vulnerability of agriculture production to climate change,” she says.

Geographically vulnerable

Prof Datuk M. Nasir Shamsudin from UPM, an agricultural economist, believes that despite the advances in biotechnology climate is still a key factor in determining agricultural production.

“Of all economic sectors, climate change has the most significant impact on food production because of its broad geographic dispersion and obvious close dependence on climate and environmental factors,” Prof Nasir tells Sunday Star.

Our geography plays an important role as well in the severity and consequences of climate change.

Agriculture and climate are mutually interdependent. Although climate change affects agriculture, agriculture also affects climate, says Prof Nasir. — Pic providedAgriculture and climate are interdependent. Prof Nasir states that although climate change has an impact on agriculture, it also has an effect on climate. — Pic provided

According to the IPCC, South-East Asia is among the world’s most at-risk regions as we face rising sea levels, heat waves, droughts and increasingly intense rainstorms.

Prof Nasir explains how studies from around the world have shown that countries located in the middle or high latitudes are more likely to see an increase in production (approximately to mid-century), whereas production systems at low latitudes are more likely to fall.

“This has implications for world food security, as most developing countries, including Malaysia, are located in lower latitude regions,” he explains.

Additionally, there is the potential for higher water stress for crops in a warmer climate, further increasing vulnerability of agricultural produce from developing countries.

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Prof Nasir adds that countries in the developing world have less resources than those in richer countries to implement appropriate measures to counter negative effects.

“If the effects of climate change are not abated, agricultural production in the middle and high latitudes is also likely to decline in the long term, approximately by the end of the 21st century,” he says, explaining that this would be primarily due to the detrimental effects of heat and water stress on crop growth as temperatures rise.

Malaysia imported RM55.5bil worth food products in 2020, compared to RM33.8bil exports. Prof Nasir says that Malaysia is a country with a severe food shortage. Therefore, it is essential to have a policy framework that addresses the impacts of climate change on food production.

“Some possible areas in the framework include adaptation strategies to build resilience into production systems, mitigation strategies to reduce or offset greenhouse gas emissions, research and development strategies to enhance food production capacity to respond to climate change, and awareness and communication strategies to inform decision-making by agricultural producers,” he says.

In response to the threat of food insecurity brought about by climate change, the government announced the National Food Security Policy Action Plan 2021-2025. — RONNIE CHIN/The StarIn response to the growing threat of food shortages caused by climate change, the government has announced the National Food Security Policy Action Plan (2021-2025). — RONNIE CHIN/The Star

Interlinked factors

When we examine ways to limit the negative effects of climate change on food production, it is important to recognize that the way we grow food contributes to the climate crisis.

Agriculture and climate are both interdependent. Prof Nasir states that although climate change has an impact on agriculture, it also has an effect on climate.

He explained that they interact with temperature effects, water demand and supply, and carbon fluxes through photosynthesis and respiration. Emissions from agricultural sources are believed to account for some 15% of today’s human-related greenhouse gas emissions, says Prof Nasir.

Recent studies have shown a significant reduction in carbon dioxide emissions through increased carbon sequestration.

Being able to reduce carbon emissions from the agriculture sector depends largely on environmentally-friendly land use and management practices – both of which need strong political and public will.

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