My mother and the many generations of mothers before her depended on agriculture for their subsistence. Back in the early 1980s, I helped to halau burung (shoo away flocks of the rice-eating pipits) after school as the rice paddies were maturing, and accompanied her to the community-owned mill to polish the rice.
But nowadays her daughters do not live the lives of farmers. Except for the youngest sibling - who is a self-styled village farmer. She plants rice in pots, uses vermicompost, fashions her gardens after permaculture, and sells her garden produce including figs, kale and goji berries, which she grows in my mother’s and our ancestral homegardens, on the internet. She advertises it as ‘semak-to-table’ produce. Aptly, my sister’s industry is compelling me (her uprooted, city-dwelling sibling) to consider how agriculture has changed over a span of three generations in this country?
There are several things worth noting. For one, modernising agriculture is one of the country’s development thrusts since 1957. So tertiary-level agro-training has been nurtured by the establishment of public colleges and research institutions where the students learn about high technology (tissue culture, genetically modified organisms, high-yield seeds and chemical fertilisers).
These modern agriculturalists have changed much of the country’s food production landscape as well as the traditional ways of their forebears. Our modern farmers are hard at work producing our food, mostly in large-scale production. Then, there are the more trending ‘new age’ farmers whose parents are not necessarily farmers, and yet they have adopted with much ease the sensibility and techniques of ancient-traditional farming. Their main aspiration is sustenance and community building. It is obvious to me that these two types (and those in-between) deserve a special place in the national curricula primarily because food production ensures the nation’s health, so comes a pandemic they become our frontliners.
In neighbouring small-state Singapore where 90 per cent of food is imported, city farming (or gardening) is practised as intensively as possible. There, growing own food is no longer a hobby but fast becoming a necessity imposed by the fluctuating fiscal and economic conditions. In this case, emulating our neighbours is a step forward. As reported in the newspapers, the sales of seeds and gardening tools, especially in our cities, is thriving during the MCO (Movement Control Order). Assuming these seeds do get planted and are now thriving and producing food at numerous homes, I am wondering how much of it is truly supplementing the commercial farm produce.
Quality of nutrition
Another problem is both practical and academic. As food security is measured by the quantity of food available to the populace, we often overlook the quality of nutrition contained within. This conundrum becomes clear in the prevalent use of a combination heading of ‘food and nutrition security’, e.g. by the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, where such compartmentalisation by phrasing potentially belies the holistic nature of nourishment, as well as highlighting our overcomplication of it.
The vitality of good food is taught in all scriptures, but good eating is impossible when we let others do everything (farm-to-fork or seed-to-stomach) for us. Therefore, it needs to be instilled in our young and old minds that, of course, agriculture is hard work and dirty but it is the most honest and rewarding of all jobs.
There are challenges ahead, naturally. Firstly, we have to thoughtfully address the perennial geographical question of location. Where to grow food?
History offers a lesson from the World Wars when many countries saw the importance of allotments despite the intense competition for lands serving military and industrial purposes. In peacetime Malaysia, the National Land Code has guaranteed nearly 50 per cent of Peninsular Malaysia as agricultural land, but this law needs to keep up with the 21st century intensifying urbanisation that requires farming within our cities in order to feed the citizens. But the refrain against reverting to the use category from business or residential to agriculture of prime land is loud. Fortunately, the 21st century government is increasingly in favour of this upgrade, so back in 2018 it had made plans to support urban farming including doubling community gardens from 11,000 to 22,000 within two years (as reported in Far Eastern Agriculture, 2018).
During the pandemic, as our young people are staying and sometimes having access to the Internet at home, getting the right farmhand should not be problem. For a quick start, they can begin by reading books (for example, Keeping Chickens for Dummies), learning by watching others (e.g. on YouTube), and then quickly experimenting on it themselves. I also see another largely untapped newfound agri-knowledge – the one being shared on social media amongst young enthusiasts and friends – that if properly curated and utilised will heighten our food security.
Next, we will answer the timeless question of when do we grow our food? Because nothing gets better without practice, my mother advises you to start early and once you commence don’t stop. The choice is in our hands, keep them sanitised and green!
Nor “N.” Rasidah Hashim, PhD, is an independent researcher living and working in Malaysia. Her research interests span the domains of social equity, biodiversity and urban planning. N. is currently an affiliate at the Institute of Landscape Planning, Universität für Bodenkultur Wien, Austria.