Urban farms hold key to food security
MALAYSIA’S urban population is expanding as a result of rural-urban migration, immigration, the development of new townships and the expansion of municipal boundaries. Urbanisation increases population density and can cause shortages of fresh food, especially fruits and vegetables. Natural calamities such as flooding and landslides, and man-made adversities such as war and pandemics have the potential to disrupt food supplies.
For example, when Covid-19 spread globally, it severely restricted travel, transit and logistics. It disrupted food supplies for various communities, especially in metropolitan areas, where locally produced fresh food and imports were distributed. Transportation delays caused a lot of perishable food, especially vegetables that were locally produced, to
spoil during the initial movement control order (MCO).
These restrictions hindered urbanites from accessing food and made distribution of agricultural produce difficult, causing
short-term food shortages, and even spurring panic buying of food supplies.
The food supply chain was severely impacted by the stringent MCO measures at local and international borders, that was aimed to stop the spread of the virus.
The economic fallout from the pandemic can still be felt until today. Many people lost their jobs or worked from home, and thus turned to gardening in their free time.
To prevent future food crises, appropriate actions must be taken. Malaysians now realise the necessity of food production, evident with the fact that urban agricultural involvement has jumped from 18,687 in 2019 to 40,219 in 2020. City inhabitants started growing vegetables in pots in their yards, verandahs and rooftops out of necessity and boredom.
Urban farming can be sustainable and offer food security to communities and households. It has environmental, social and economic benefits. It can feed locals, reduce import dependence, create jobs and improve the environment.
Urban farming is promoted as a means to feed people healthy and fresh food in countries like Brazil, the US and Africa.
Before Covid-19, most of the Malaysian urban population had not joined a community garden before. However, urban farming has become more popular due to increasing stakeholder support.
When communal life and office work return to normal, will urban farming participation grow or be sustained? A social media study shows that several towns increased their community garden awareness and activities during and after the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, in an effort to get more people involved in urban farming, the government and a number of NGO
launched campaigns, organised programmes and provided subsidies but the lack of knowledge, area and space available limited these activities. However, post-pandemic, the government and NGO have been promoting and transferring knowledge to preserve and grow urban farming.
As a leader in urban community prosperity and sustainability, the Housing and Local Government Development Ministry introduced the urban community farming policy in August 2021. The policy promotes organised, methodical, organic and sustainable community gardens. It also supports Malaysia’s goal to meet the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 by integrating economic, social and environmental development.
The ministry wants to help urbanites develop open spaces around their homes with cultivation that will benefit the community, contribute to sustainable development and help address numerous other concerns.
To strengthen this undertaking, the ministry must address a few key issues. Management and organisation of communal gardens and farms, as well as arrangements for the guaranteed sale of produce in the form of contract farming agreements and equitable sharing of earnings, are all essential.
The government may need to build permanent food production parks to address shortage of land for food production, where growing fruit and vegetables can be made permanent.
It can help trainee entrepreneurs from the Agricultural Technology Centre find project sites. Potentially, urban biodomes with IR4.0 and Internet of Things can be built to safeguard plants in the permanent food production parks.
We should also look at our neighbours in Singapore as an example, where residents of Sky Greens get their food from vertical farming units at the rooftop. Even though traditional farming is the norm in most parts of the country, basic hydroponic systems are still being widely used in urban and community gardens.
Youths in Malaysia typically do not have a favourable outlook towards urban agriculture since it is time consuming and lacks modern conveniences. This and the success of other initiatives will depend on the ability to stimulate the interests of young people and inspire them to get involved in urban agriculture programmes, which were viewed as an exclusive purview of retirees and the elderly.
Attracting the attention of the youth and elderly will depend on incorporating
cutting-edge technology, like those described above, and other innovations already in the market that will make urban farming less labour intensive and more fruitful.
Modern urban agriculture, which places
a focus on cutting-edge agricultural technologies, can only thrive with the
support of a well-educated populace; and schools, colleges and universities play a
Covid has undoubtedly revealed challenges and gaps in urban food security, highlighting the need of urban agriculture in crisis times in Malaysia. Government agencies, NGO and educational institutions must work together to promote this policy, especially for urban food security.
Long-term partnerships between agencies, the education sector and corporates are needed to develop new agricultural technology and learning approaches that will keep communities interested in urban agriculture.
Stakeholder engagement, especially with our youth, is essential for the success of providing safe and reliable food sources for everyone.
Suzie Haryanti Husain is a lecturer in the School of Biosciences at Taylor’s University. Her areas of research include agronomy,
plant nutrition, plantation management and
urban farming. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.