Food supply chain disrupted by climate change, says expert

14 Feb 2022 09:31am
Crisis at all levels. (Illustrative photo. Source: 123rf)
Crisis at all levels. (Illustrative photo. Source: 123rf)

SHAH ALAM - Adverse effects of climate change are the driving factor to the sudden change in the food supply chain, which according to geospatial expert Dr Nisfariza Mohd Noor, is not isolated to Malaysia alone but the world.

The Universiti Malaya senior lecturer from the Geography department said the recent floods, which have devastated millions of ringgit worth of crops across the country was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unpredictable weather brought about as a result of climate change.

She said Malaysia also had rapid developments to thank for hastening the process and contributing to the overarching and ongoing issue of climate change.

Urbanisation, she said, directly alters forest ecosystems by removing or fragmenting forest cover and turning them into agricultural land and only has one end goal in mind - to make more space for city development.

“Although this is common globally, the problem in Malaysia is the fact that it is happening too much, too fast and only in a handful of areas.

“This sets off a chain reaction that is hard to undo as it affects every level of the supply chain industry.

“Looking at how floods can happen even in cities now, the government has to start looking into funding the recovery process that comes after such natural disasters,” she told Sinar Daily.

Nisfariza said the process of urbanisation reduces the amount of surface water that acts as a retention pond for local micro-climate and flooding control.

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She highlighted that major changes needed to happen regardless of whether the country was ready or not should we want to mitigate flooding in developed cities and reduce the amount of food wastage.

To paint a bleak picture, she shared that rice yield has reduced by as much as four per cent for every one-degree increase in temperature.

“When other climate changes are taken into consideration, such as the recent droughts and floods, rice yield may be reduced by up to 60 per cent.

“Covid-19 does play a major role in food loss and wastage but our understanding of the disease has come a long way since then.

“A lot of items were wasted during MCO because we did not understand how Covid-19 was transmitted. We were stuck in a bubble and the safest way to deal with it then was to do away with all the fresh produce and crops we had.

“Hence, it is not a supply issue but a supply chain issue,” she said, adding that unsustainable methods of farming are still widely practiced by farmers in the country thus leading to huge losses in the food supply.

She cited the increase in temperatures leads to an increase in pests, and in these farmers' minds - to combat that issue besides using an unhealthy amount of pesticide.

The food that we consume, Nisfariza said, depends on things beyond our control.

She said production output depends not on technologies or smart farming alone but an agronomist needs to ensure that everything runs smoothly from there.

Homegrown innovation, she said, was not lacking by any means, but local experts and researchers are not being utilised to their fullest when the adoption of new farming technologies is involved.

The National Agrofood Policy 2021-2030 had already laid out plans for farmers to start automating and innovating existing agricultural practices like precision farming, vertical farming and using drones, but Nisfariza shared that a lot of funding is needed to do so.

She said this, however, that was only the beginning.

“Innovative agriculture leads to massive crop yields which are not always good news for farmers, for they now have the issue of finding a channel to supply their yields to.

“The issue we need to tackle here is not vertical farming itself, but what happens after.

“Labour-intensive crops have a short life span and have to be immediately transported to buyers to even move down the supply chain,” she said.

Besides that, Nisfariza highlights the bureaucratic process that comes into play if farmers do indeed express an interest in adopting agricultural technologies.

This, she said, was a gap which the government has yet to address.

She said although the government has been pushing for the adoption of these new technologies, farms nationwide, most of which are privately-owned, cannot be forced to comply.

“There is that lack of compensation aspect to attract these farms. Grants given are merely for research, which is not enough to trigger a collaborative environment between public and private institutions,” she said.

Nisfariza then turned the tables on private entities and said that crop insurance should be their utmost priority, especially during these trying times for the agro-food industry.

Another pressing concern she has is the lack of transparency in regards to farm-to-table supply chain reports.

“Local consumers are not even aware whether the potatoes supplied to the various fast-food chains we have here are imported or homegrown, so the first step the government should consider to eliminate uncertainties regarding the supply chain shortage is to first digitize where our food is coming from,” she said.

Recently, the fast-food industry suffered a minor shortage when the supply chain was not only disrupted by the floods and the pandemic but also by logistical processes worldwide.