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Organic food industry as an engine of agricultural growth

12 Jul 2020 / 20:53 H.

GIVEN that Malaysia’s organic food industry is less welcoming to new entrants, participation in this sector should be promoted to Malaysians of all ages because its production is proven safe and healthy.

What is more, graduates who have yet to secure regular jobs should also join the sector to make a significant contribution to economic growth.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industry is also encouraging them to venture into the agricultural sector such as organic rice farming to generate income while offering them a chance to join the “Young Agropreneur” programme.

As the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in rising unemployment, the sector’s involvement is part of an effort to reduce the country’s unemployment rate.

In the US, organic food is the largest segment of the global market for organic foods and beverages, with a market share of 84.1%. At the same time, North America is the leading regional food and beverage market for organic foods.

It happens because organic imports are playing a crucial role in the US market because of the challenge faced by organic producers over the past decade to meet the increasing consumer demand for the products.

Whereas the Centre for Research in Biotechnology for Agriculture at the University of Malaya has reviewed the local organic food industry is still small, with more than 60% of natural food products imported.

Over the past decades, the government’s initiatives to encourage people to lead a healthy lifestyle appears to have been successful as demand for organically grown foods has increased significantly due to their possible health benefits and food safety assurance.

Deputy Agriculture and Food Industry Minister Datuk Che Abdullah Mat Nawi has said the increased demand for organic rice is attributable to Malaysians’ healthier lifestyles.

He also stressed that organic padi farming would produce a better return than traditional agriculture due to low water usage and limited use of padi seeds.

It is also proven safe for public health, because organic food in its manufacturing process is natural and chemical-free, which is ultimately suitable for consumption.

But the only concern is that the availability of local organic foods cannot satisfy the increased demand, limiting the selection of local organic foods.

Other benefits of organically grown foods include higher dry matter levels, particularly for leafy vegetables and tubers, more top-quality proteins with better amino acid ranking, and more magnesium, iron, phosphorus and other healthy elements.

On the environmental effect, organic farming increases soil’s physical-biological properties consisting of more organic matter, biomass, higher enzymes, more excellent soil stability, improved water percolation, holding capacity, lower water and wind erosion.

It also requires less energy and creates less waste per unit area or yield, and is less environmentally harmful as it does not require synthetic pesticides.

As a comparison, conventionally grown foods have immense adverse health effects due to the presence of higher pesticide residue, more nitrate, heavy metals, hormones, antibiotic waste and genetically modified organisms. They are also less nutritious and contain fewer protective antioxidants than organically grown foods.

To promote organic farming before this, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements has suggested the four fundamental principles of organic agriculture: health, ecology, fairness, and care.

Some of the principles’ advantages will motivate and enhance biological cycles in the agricultural system, preserve and enhance soil fertility, minimise all forms of pollution, avoid the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, and produce high-quality food in sufficient quantities.

There are also many revised government policies and regulations aimed at fostering further development and promoting the organic food industry, including the National Agro-Food Policy, Third National Agriculture Policy, and Tenth Malaysia Plan.

Still, it seems futile without proper implementation plan and the public’s unwillingness to join the industry.

As in India, the country before this was far behind in the adoption of organic farming for several reasons, but it has now achieved rapid growth in organic agriculture until it has now become one of the world’s largest organic producers.

Thus, with the advent of various advanced technologies in Malaysia, it will serve as a model for our country to succeed in organic farming.

However, the organic food industry does have some concerns and problems to be considered.

Some of the problems are the lack of incentives and public interest in the quality of natural products, heightening the farmers’ scepticism about embracing organic agriculture.

Thus, farmers tend to forget about organic food production to cut costs and gain people’s confidence in food safety and price. Apart from this, it is clear that organic foods do appear to cost a lot more than other groceries, as these typically come at a premium price in most supermarkets.

Part of it is a matter of supply and demand, and organic produce, meat, and dairy often require more money than conventional products to grow.

HelpGuide, a non-profit mental health and wellness website has encouraged people to shop on the farmers’ market, join food cooperatives, support community-supported agriculture farms, purchase seasonally and compare prices at grocery stores, farmers’ markets, online and elsewhere to manage their spending on organic food.

So, the government should review the organic farming policy on an ongoing basis and shift the paradigm to ensure the organic food industry becomes a growth engine for the agricultural sector.

Besides, comprehensive strategies and collaboration from the producers and marketers are needed to gain public cooperation and trust to ensure the industry’s success.

Farhan Kamarulzaman is a research assistant at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

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