A few weeks ago, Agriculture and Food Industries Minister Dr Ronald Kiandee said in an interview that Malaysia’s production of rice has been adversely impacted by climate change.

In particular, we’re getting a bit too much rain and a bit too much sun. Between 2017 and 2021, more than 40,000ha of paid fields were destroyed by floodwaters, while roughly another 9,000ha were damaged due to drought. An estimated 63,000ha have been exposed to frequent episodes of dry spells, out of a total of 350,000ha of padi fields.

In human terms, given that the average Malaysian eats about 80kg of rice a year, and given each hectare in Malaysia produces about 2,300kg a year, then a loss of that much harvest due to climate change impacts hundreds of thousands of Malaysians.

Although this represents a relatively small percentage of the population, it puts a dent in the nation’s ambitions to increase self-sufficiency levels in rice production to 75% by 2025.

When this issue was recently raised in Parliament, the focus seemed to be on who will take care of the farmers. Cumulatively between 2017 and 2021, farmers who applied for compensation under the Agriculture and Food Industries Ministry’s (Mafi) Agricultural Disaster Fund reported damages totalling RM128.8mil due to floods and RM21.6mil due to droughts. In response, the government allocated RM80mil to Mafi under Budget 2021 to create the Agricultural Disaster Fund (now known as the Allocation for Redevelopment of Agro-Food Projects).

Yet, this is clearly a short-term mitigation measure that will barely make a dent in a long-term issue caused by the fact that the planet is being heated by greenhouse gases and the climate crisis with its extreme weather events is one result of that. For example, research at the International Rice Research Institute in 2004 established that grain yield declines by 10% per degree Celsius rise (specifically, in the minimum temperature at night during the dry season). Meanwhile, temperatures above 35°C can make rice sterile and produce no grain.

Will we continue to compensate farmers as things heat up in the future?

To Malaysia’s credit, there have been other efforts that try to anticipate the issue of climate change. For example, the government says it is developing new padi varieties that can better withstand the effects of floods and droughts. Meanwhile, there are attempts to improve water management through the National Water Balance Management System programme by the Environment and Water Ministry.

However, if you excuse my mangled phrasing, I fear that we are putting all our rice grains in one basket. We should be looking at options beyond rice.

Take for example what is happening to meat (mainly to beef). It is well understood that meat is a really inefficient way of producing food. It takes up a lot of resources and produces many unwanted side effects. For example, a 2017 Oxford University study concluded that if the world moved to a diet that doesn’t include animal proteins, it will reduce land use by about three billion hectares (a 75% reduction), and cut food’s greenhouse gas emissions by about half.

But people love their meat, so taking it off the table is not such an easy proposition. It may not surprise you that there are efforts to make cows burp and fart less, either by changing their diet or through genetic manipulation – it’s no laughing matter because the methane gas from livestock burps and farts is one of the biggest contributors to global warming.

Why not cut out the cow altogether?

Take Impossible Foods, for example. This is an attempt to replicate the flavour of meat using plant-based substitutes. I’ve tried an Impossible Burger, and although it doesn’t quite taste like beef, I also wouldn’t have immediately said it was vegetarian if you hadn’t told me. The American company has partnered with fast food outlets, and Impossible Pork will soon be sold in Singapore.

If you’re willing to try something a little more outlandish, how about lab-grown meat? Instead of slaughtering a live animal, you grow the meat in a big vat. If you live in Singapore, you could go online now and order chicken nuggets that have never seen the inside of a live chicken and have them delivered to your home.

It sounds like science fiction, but the fact that our planet is on the verge of tipping over into an irreversible climatic cascade is also hard for many to grasp even though this is science fact, not fiction. One of the new realities is that we might have to change what we eat, based on growing things that are hardier and can withstand extremes in rainfall and temperature.

For example, take a plant called “sea asparagus”, which looks like a thin, long bean but is quite salty. More importantly, it can thrive where soil conditions are quite poor and the water is more salty than fresh. Admittedly, it’s probably more suitable for Middle Eastern countries than South-East Asian ones, but it’s something new.

Okra, mushrooms and sweet potatoes are also relatively hardy, and kelp is another option to consider. Legumes and pulses (types of beans) have the advantage that they don’t need as much nitrogen-based fertilisers to grow (these fertilisers can indirectly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions).

An article about food security in Malaysia last year highlighted that we seem to be fine when it comes to sourcing fruits and most vegetables locally (and of many different varieties too), but our demand for rice, milk, beef and mutton outstrips our production capacity. Meanwhile, we devote about five times as much land to oil palm as we do to paid farming (“Beefing up food security”).

The future is so uncertain, and we can’t easily predict what the changes will be. But we should at least be prepared for them, and take more effort to make sure we take care of our rice bowl – or whatever it will be in the future.


In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at lifestyle@thestar.com.my. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.



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