March 22, 2023
SINGAPORE – Malaysian farms could in the future be equipped with remote-controlled sensors, drones and robots to monitor, water and fertilise crops as the country looks to boost food security, according to Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Chang Lih Kang.
The country aims to ramp up domestic production using technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and precision farming, in order to reduce import dependency.
“Farms can use IoT to control everything from the soil pH to temperature and humidity. They can even do long-distance farming. Say you’re at home, you can see all the readings on your phone, so you can control it,” Mr Chang told The Straits Times.
“Everything is very precise; there is no wastage.”
IoT devices can also be used for greenhouse climate control, crop monitoring, precision fertilisation and other tasks.
Robots and drones can deliver smarter and more sustainable methods to automate farming activity and boost crop and livestock yields while reducing usage of water, energy and labour.
Seeking to emulate the success of a privately owned, pesticide-free aquaponic farm that rears tilapia and grows organic lettuce and spinach in Perak with the use of IoT, the government is executing three similar pilot projects in the states of Perak and Johor.
It hopes that the use of IoT in agriculture – where Internet-connected devices monitor and carry out tasks on farms – will become more widespread and help solve food security issues.
“I think that is the way forward, especially when we are talking about food security. When you say food security, it is not only the food supply, but at the same time also the quality of food; whether or not it is safe to be eaten,” added Mr Chang.
Other technologies being tested include ways to shorten harvesting periods, as well as increase yield and resilience against pests.
One hurdle, however, could be the high initial cost.
For a farm of around 930 sq m, an IoT system is estimated to cost around RM50,000 (S$15,000), excluding other requirements such as seeds and a greenhouse, all of which could set a farmer back around RM500,000.
Like many other countries, Malaysia relies heavily on imports for essential food products, despite an abundance of land and resources.
Some of the issues faced by the agriculture sector include labour shortages, low levels of automation and technology adoption, as well as high dependence on foreign labour.
In 2022, Malaysia suffered a poultry shortage following a global increase in the cost of animal feed due to the Ukraine war, leading to a ban on exports to Singapore.
Food security is now a priority for the new government.
Over the next two to seven years, Malaysia hopes to raise fish production from aquaculture from 26 per cent of total fish production to 60 per cent.
It is also aiming to increase the country’s beef self-sufficiency ratio to 50 per cent by 2025. Malaysia’s beef imports currently account for 82 per cent of demand.
Complementing these efforts, the National Grain Corn Industry Blueprint aims to ramp up production of corn for animal feed to 600,000 tonnes within the next 10 years, to cut dependence on imports by up to 30 per cent.
Malaysia currently imports almost 100 per cent of its grain corn, or about two million tonnes per year, from countries such as Argentina, Brazil and the United States.
Agriculture and Food Security Minister Mohamad Sabu told ST that the government has identified 400ha of land for this purpose, and will encourage more youth to become farmers or graduates in smart agriculture, as well as research and development.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industry has been renamed the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security to show how serious the government is about food security, he said.
“The new government is committed to guaranteeing the accessibility of sufficient food at reasonable prices to the people at a time when the country is facing food inflation,” said Datuk Seri Mohamad.
The National Food Security Policy Action Plan 2021-2025 and the National Agrofood Policy 2021-2030 are being implemented as part of efforts to bolster food production with the adoption of modern technologies and economies of scale. The government also seeks to strengthen the food value chain and encourage sustainable agricultural practices.
“Our top priority remains to increase the local food production and self-sufficiency ratio of main food products (rice, vegetables, fruits, chicken, beef, egg, milk and fish), while, at the same time, we are also looking to diversify sources of food imports to meet domestic demand,” added Mr Mohamad.