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Farming 101: Precision & Smart Farming – Part 3: Lessons from Malaysia

Agriculture Farming Statistics Graph

When one is looking at farming land in the country, there is a substantial increase in agricultural land in Malaysia since the 1960s. In 2018, the farmland area for Malaysia was 85,710 sq. km. The farmland area of Malaysia increased from 37,559 sq. km in 1969 to 85,710 sq. km in 2018 growing at an average annual rate of 1.72%. Data & chart source: World Bank

Illegal Farmlands

It was a surprise that the Defence Minister is now proposing that the military start vegetable farms in army camps to sustain the food supply to the military but back in 2019, this happened:-

Farm owners evicted from the Kuala Terla water catchment area are pleading with the state government to find an alternative site for them.

About 70 per cent of the vegetable farms have been vacated up to yesterday. However, some of the 60 farmers, whose families have been growing vegetables there for 40 to 50 years, refused to budge. They hope the state government will relocate their farms to new areas where they can continue running their business.

R. Subramaniam, 65, a second-generation smallholder, said he had been working on the farm since it was opened by his late father in 1980.

“I have spent so much on the farm, but today everything is gone.

“The state government initially claimed that the temporary occupation licences (TOLs) of farmers in the area had expired in 2009, and that the farmers had enough time to leave the area after the eviction notices were issued.

The enforcement operation — Op Lestari 2 — which is being conducted by the Cameron Highlands District and Land Office with the support of agencies including the National Security Council, is expected to be completed within a month.

Launched on Dec 16, the operation comes after Op Lestari, which was aimed at restoring natural water sources, particularly Sungai Ichat which has been badly polluted due to illegal development of land for agriculture.

(Source: NST)

DOSM Agriculture Statistic Farming

The above 2021 statistics from the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM) show that a large part of the agricultural land use however is used for the production of palm oil followed by other sectors of agriculture. The question is how many agricultural players have embarked on modern farming practices & tools? Image source: DOSM

And then in 2021, we had something similar:-

A group of Pahang-based durian farmers has chastised the Pahang State Forestry Department (JPNP) for chopping down almost 15,000 durian trees in just over a week, calling it illegal, appalling, and one that destroyed the surrounding nature and livelihood of these farmers.

Chang expressed disappointment towards JPNP’s actions, claiming the nine-day operation had managed to destroy trees planted and nurtured by these farmers for more than 20 years across the affected 250-acres of land.

“In the eyes of the Pahang Forestry Department, 15,000 durian trees were merely numbers,” said Chang.

This after JPNP Chief Assistant Director (Enforcement) Nor Azirim Ahmad lauded the tree-culling exercise by his department that started on July 3, and has since chopped down trees across 101 hectares in just nine days.

Nor Azirim was quoted saying how he felt proud at the speed the operations were conducted to chop down the 15,000 trees, saying it was down to the cooperation of more than 100 JPNP staff.

The senior official, however, did also state the operations will include replanting exercises in the cleared land, saying some 20,000 trees are set to be planted in the plots that used to house the Musang King durian trees.

(Source: Malay Mail)

The point is that these vegetable and durian farmers did not use the state land overnight but rather have been cultivating the land for the past 20 – 50 years and suddenly the state government wakes up and decides to evict these farmers, impacting the output of the crops in the same process. Chopping down 15,000 durian trees is a sheer waste considering that the area was replanted with durian trees.

There should have been a smarter way to deal with farmers who are cultivating precious food resources illegally on state lands. After all, if the Defence Minister now can consider highly secured army camps as potential farmlands, what more of the existing farmlands? In the case of the durian farmers, there was a solution where the new owners will sublease the land to these durian owners in return for payments.

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Video caption:

REDtone Smart Farming solutions provide an integrated IoT platform that allows farmers to leverage sensors, smart gateways and monitoring systems to collect information, control various parameters on their farms and analyse real-time data in order to make informed decisions. 

Smart Farm Solutions in Malaysia

In reality, we have indeed embraced the concept of smart farming in the country and this is being spearheaded by mainly Government-linked entities. Smart farming includes IoT, automation and robotics and there are clear benefits from this:-

Namely, there are five ways IoT can improve agriculture:-

1. Data, tons of data, collected by smart agriculture sensors can be used to track the state of your business in general, as well as staff performance, equipment efficiency, etc.

2. The ability to foresee the output of your production allows you to plan for better product distribution. Hence, better control over the internal processes and, as a result, lower production risks.

3. Cost management and waste reduction thanks to the increased control over production.

4. Increased business efficiency through process automation.

5. Achieve better control over the production process and maintain higher standards of crop quality and growth capacity through automation.

As a result, all of these factors can eventually lead to higher revenue.

IoT however is not the only concept used in smart farming. Other concepts includes Autonomous & Robotic labour and Drones & UAVs for imaging, planting and more.

(Source: FGV Prodata)

And other from MDEC with their eLadang solution:-

A pilot initiative driven by MDEC, in collaboration with ecosystem partners to empower the agriculture sector by infusing 4IR technologies, i.e. Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data Analytics (BDA) and even Artificial Intelligence (AI) to catalyze digital adoption towards improving the livelihood of the many farmers across the nation.

(Source: MDEC)

And this includes the big data analysis like this:-

Combine the power of sensors and analytical tools with TM One Smart Agriculture Solution to introduce precise, data-driven agriculture management practices.

Access a deeper, more real-time understanding of crops and livestock to drive faster, more accurate, more profitable, and more sustainable farms.

(Source: TM One)

The problem with these smart farming solutions is that it is driven mostly by private entities which will charge numerous fees for the rental, equipment and consultancy services and all of these will definitely increase the operating cost of farming.

Smart farming is driven by private companies, therefore, discouraging small-scale farmers from moving on from traditional to modern farming. The government should step in to a smarter partnership with these smart farming tech companies and the farmers with the initial costs heavily subsidised to move the farmer to modern farming.

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Video caption: MARDI was established with the main objectives of generating and promoting new, appropriate and efficient technologies for the advancement of the food, agriculture, food and agro-based industries. 

MARDI Malaysia

MARDI or the longer name, Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute was established by the Federal Government in 1969 to facilitate the research & development of the agricultural sector in the counter.

Its key roles and responsibilities are as follows:-

To conduct scientific, technical, economic and sociological research with respect to;

(i) the production, utilization and processing of all crops (except rubber, oil palm and cocoa), livestock and food; and

(ii) mixed farming;

To serve as a center for collecting and disseminating information and advisory services pertaining to scientific, technical and economic matters related to food, agriculture and agro-based industry.

These functions are accomplished through various methods inclusive of publication of reports, periodicals and related papers and organizing of exhibitions, conferences and seminars, and lectures.

To serve as a center that provides expert services in food, agriculture and agro-based industry such as consultancy services, laboratory analysis, quality assurance and contract research and development (R&D).

Provision of various forms of trainings to cater for the development of the food, agriculture and agro-based industry.

Provision of aid for pure and applied scientific, technical and economic research and development related to food, agriculture and agro-based industry.

To maintain liaison with local and foreign public and private organizations engaged in scientific, technical, economic and social research related to food, agriculture and agro-based industry.

To conduct commercial research and production.

To develop, promote and exploit research findings.

To provide extension services to the agriculture, food and agro-based industries.

The MARDI leadership had evolved from capacity building, establishment of farming and cropping systems towards technoloogy commercialization, total quality management and culture of excellence in attaining national and international recognition.

(Source: MARDI)

Despite the many achievements that MARDI have achieved since its establishment, one has to view that the expertise in MARDI is being underutilized and does not cover all spectrum of agriculture both from the supply of raw materials, supplementary services and final products. We still have reports of a shortage of chicken, eggs and vegetables.

Final Say

In this informative article that was reported in The Edge Markets, the CEO of Technology Park Malaysia, Dzuleira Abu Bakar highlighted the challenges that our agriculture is facing and how innovation will greatly help to improve the ability to produce our own food:-

Malaysia’s food imports have increasingly outpaced our food exports, resulting in a growing food trade deficit. In 2017, Malaysia’s food trade balance deficit stood at RM19.45 billion.

Our tastes have also changed: In the 1960s, 49% of our calories came from rice, but it is down to about 20% today. Meanwhile, our intake of meat from total calorie supply grew from 3.8% to 9%.

In Malaysia, our agricultural sector is hampered by productivity and crop yield issues, high food waste and unsustainable practices, an inefficient and fragmented supply chain, as well as an ageing workforce and high reliance on foreign workers.

Another challenge is the shortage of capital investment in Malaysia’s agriculture sector, which begs the question: If agritech isn’t in the hands of those who would need it most, will we make any impact at all?

Often, smallholder farmers who do not have a lot of funding will not be able to purchase automated hardware such as robotic harvesters, which could help them combat the labour shortage, or invest in drones, AI or cloud solutions.

(Source: The Edge Markets)

We are still exercising a largely traditional style of farming in the country that requires heavy use of resources & manpower despite that having semi-modern farming in place, especially in the urban areas.

The updates of these urban modem farming however are low and not widely promoted for more people to be interested in running modern, smart farmland. And even this is done, the issue is the high cost of technology especially if it is provided by the private sector which will have to meet its own financial KPIs.

Urban farming will need to be heavily promoted by means of incentives and by-laws that allows small-scale modern farming to be done that can sustain & feed local communities with cheaper & fresh vegetables. Methods to reduce wastage of food must also be shared and enforced if necessary so as to reduce the consumption that will return reduce the food imports.

Small holding farms will need to be merged into large corporations to widen the use of modern technology and to share the cost and resources.

This is why the Government will need to step in with grants and funding to enable the self-sustaining food production and upgrade of conventional farming to modern farming that will reduce the dependence on food imports, high resources and foreign manpower.

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