As a result of rural-urban movement, immigration, the creation of new townships, and the extension of urban limits, Malaysia's urban population is projected to grow from 34.3 per cent in 1971 to 77.2 per cent in 2020. Urbanisation increases population density, causes difficulties and shortages in some urban areas to buy fresh food, especially fruits and vegetables. Food supplies are also vulnerable to being interrupted by both natural (such as flooding and landslides) and man-made (such as war and pandemics) calamities.
For example, as COVID-19 spread worldwide, it caused drastic limitations in mobility, transit, and logistics. It disrupted food supplies for various Malaysian communities, especially in metropolitan areas where locally produced fresh food and imports were distributed. During the first relevant Movement Control Order (MCO), transportation bottlenecks meant that many perishable food supplies, particularly vegetables from local producing areas, were abandoned.
In the early days of the pandemic, these constraints hindered urbanites' access to food and the distribution of agricultural produce, causing short-term food shortages and even provoked panic buying of food supplies. The food supply chain was severely impacted by strong MCO measures at local and international borders, especially early in the outbreak, to stop the virus's spread. Recent crisis activities indicate such a realisation. Many people lost their jobs or worked from home due to pandemic limitations and thus turned to spend their free time gardening.
To prevent future food crises, appropriate actions must be taken. Malaysians now realise the necessity of food production, evident with the fact that urban agricultural involvement has jumped from 18,687 in 2019 to 40,219 in 2020. City inhabitants started growing vegetables in pots on yards, verandas, and rooftops out of necessity and boredom.
Urban farming can achieve sustainable agriculture and food security by helping communities to get fresh food for every household. It has environmental, social, and economic benefits. It can feed locals, reduce import dependence, create jobs, and improve the environment. Urban farming is promoted as a way to feed people healthy and fresh food in countries like Brazil, the United States, and several in Africa. Before COVID-19, most of the Malaysian urban population had not joined a community garden before. However, urban farming has become more popular due to increasing stakeholder support.
When communal life and office work return to normal, will urban farming participation grow or be sustained? A social media study shows that several towns increased their community garden awareness and activities during and after the pandemic. In an effort to get more people involved in farming in urban areas before the pandemic hit, the government and a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) launched campaigns, organised programmes, and gave subsidies for urban farming but lacking knowledge, area, and space available may limit these activities. Thus, the post-pandemic government and NGOs will promote and transfer knowledge to preserve and grow urban farming.
As a leader in urban community prosperity and sustainability, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (KPKT) introduced the Urban Community Farm Policy (Dasar Kebun Komuniti Bandar (DKKB)) in August 2021. This policy promotes organised, methodical, organic, and sustainable urban community gardens. This strategy also supports Malaysia's goal to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030 by integrating economic, social, and environmental development. DKKB wants to help the urban community develop the open spaces around their homes with cultivation activities that benefit the community, contribute to sustainable development, and help address the numerous municipal concerns.
Management, organisation issues
To develop and strengthen this commendable undertaking, the DKKB must address a few key issues. Management and organisation of communal gardens and farms, as well as arrangements for the guaranteed sale of produce in the form of contract farming agreements and equitable sharing of earnings, are all essential.
The government may need to build Permanent Food Production Parks (Taman Kekal Pengeluaran Makanan (TKPM)) to address entrepreneurs and private sector's shortage of adequate land for food production where growing fruit and vegetables will be permanent.
TKPMs can help trainee entrepreneurs from the Department of Agriculture Incubator Centre find project sites. Potentially, Urban BioDomes with IR4.0 and IoT could be built to safeguard plants in urban TKPMs. We can also look to our neighbours in Singapore where residents of the Sky Greens vertical buildings can get their food from rooftop urban farms. Even though traditional farming is the norm in most of the country, basic hydroponics systems are still widely used in urban and community gardens.
Youth in Malaysia typically do not have a favourable outlook towards urban agriculture since it is time-consuming and lacks modern conveniences. This and other initiatives' success will depend on the ability to stimulate the interests of young people and inspire them to get involved in urban agriculture programmes, which were before viewed as the exclusive purview of retirees and the elderly.
Keeping the attention of the city's youth and elderly may depend on incorporating cutting-edge technology like those described above and other innovations already on the market that make urban farming less labour-intensive and more fruitful. Modern urban agriculture, which places a focus on cutting-edge agricultural technologies, can only thrive with the support of a well-educated populace, and schools, colleges, and universities can play a crucial role in this.
Urban food security
COVID-19 has undoubtedly revealed challenges and gaps in urban food security, highlighting the need of urban agriculture in crisis times in Malaysia. Government agencies, NGOs, and educational institutions must work together to promote this policy, especially for urban food security.
Long-term partnerships between government agencies, the education sector, and corporates are needed to develop new urban agricultural technology and learning approaches that will keep urban communities interested in urban agriculture. Stakeholder engagement, especially within our youth is essential for its success to provide safe and reliable food sources for everyone.
Suzie Haryanti Husain is a lecturer at the School of Biosciences at Taylor’s University.