Malaysia’s capability of food self-sufficiency and resilience was demonstrated during the Movement Control Order (MCO) which occurred from early 2020 to late 2021. Malaysians were affected financially by the pandemic due to unemployment or reduced salaries, which contributed to an unstable food market. In addition to the poor financial outlook throughout the pandemic, the restriction on the movement of goods and people further impaired food processing, marketing, and delivery.
After the post-pandemic period, the issue of food security has only gotten worse as the output of food production continues to remain inadequate, leading to increased costs for basic everyday food. The need for Malaysia to develop a response to this issue deepens as food protectionism (countries safeguarding local food supplies and banning exports) from regional trading countries grows, further inciting global inflation that could affect food supply. According to the World Bank in 2021, global food prices have risen by 38% since January 2020, with wheat prices increasing by 28% and maize prices 80% higher than before.
Malaysia’s Take on Food Security and Self-Sufficiency
National Agricultural Policy
Let’s take a look at the National Agricultural Policy to address most of the nation’s food security issues since its introduction in 1984 before diving into the most recent policies and initiatives.
National Agricultural Policy is focused on tackling poverty in rural areas and closing the income gaps among farmers.
To enhance food supply, have sustainable development, productivity, and linkages among sectors.
The National Agricultural Policy 2011-2020 focused on food security by developing food commodities and earnings from higher-value agricultural exports.
Nevertheless, gaps within the food systems were visible during the pandemic. This led to a new action plan by the government to strengthen food self-sufficiency domestically.
2021-2025 National Food Security Policy Action Plan
Malaysia is still dependent on food imports to sustain the food supply within the country. Food imports rose to RM55.4 billion in 2020 compared to RM51.4 billion in 2019 due to the country’s dependence.
In fact, self-sufficiency levels for meat, vegetables, and fruits in the country stand at 22.9%, 44.6% and 78.4%, indicating a need to raise domestic production to combat rising food prices and global food inflation.
The 2021-2025 National Food Security Policy Action Plan was set up by the Malaysian government to strengthen food security in the nation, focusing on 4 food security aspects which are availability, access, consumption, and stability & sustainability.
Urban Farming in Vacant Commercial and Office Spaces as a Catalyst for Food Security and Sustainability
Besides the efforts by governments to tackle the issue of food security (e.g. Selangor Agro Transformation Plan (PeTA) by the Selangor government to allocate 2,000 acres of state land for agricultural purposes each year), another opportunity to address food security concerns rises amidst the decrease of occupancy rates in commercial spaces within urban areas.
With the declining occupancy rate, property developers and owners could leverage these vacant spaces and repurpose them into “edible landscapes” to tap into the potential of urban farming, replicating the success seen in Singapore.
What is Urban Farming?
So, what exactly does it mean by the term urban farming? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it refers to:
“The cultivation, processing, and distribution of agricultural products in urban and suburban settings, including things like vertical production, warehouse farms, community gardens, rooftop farms, hydroponic, aeroponic, and aquaponic facilities, and other innovations. Urban farmers and gardeners work among diverse populations to expand access to nutritious foods, foster community engagement, provide jobs, educate communities about farming, and expand green spaces.”
In other words, food growing initiatives in cities are executed in private commercial spaces and even residential spaces such as apartment rooftops, balconies, and private backyards to generate revenue by selling them to urban consumers.
Common Types of Urban Farming
There is a list of urban farming techniques which can be used depending on the space and location. Here are a few notable types:
Rooftop farming is one of the more popular ones where residents and commercial spaces make use of the vacant roof space to farm crops.
Vertical farming as its name suggests uses tower farms to grow plants vertically to save space and maximise production output.
Hydroponics uses water to grow plants instead of soil and it often produces more due to faster growth as compared to traditional soil. Aquaponics combines hydroponics with aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as fish and prawns) in a symbiotic environment to produce crops and protein.
Street landscaping is commonly used for community gardens where people in the neighbourhood tend to the space.
Benefits of Urban Farming
There are benefits to urban farming rather than just beautifying the city with more greeneries, as the initiative has the potential to grow the local economy and provide for the community. Let’s take a look at the benefits as follows:
More “Greens” and Improving Urban Environment
Urban farming can provide plenty of environmental benefits when it is well planned. It acts as a carbon sink which absorbs carbon dioxide within the city, improves the air quality, supports biodiversity, mitigates heat, and reduces the risk of flooding (aquaponics gather rainwater to be used in farming). Urban farming also helps to reduce local carbon footprint as food is consumed within the same geographical location and this reduces dependency on conventional farms, especially emissions from the transportation of food.
Minimises Waste and Improves Local Food Security
About 30% of fresh produce often perishes during transportation from the farm to markets. Fresh produce generated from urban farms mitigates this loss as harvests are often on-demand and transportation is kept within minimal distances. At the same time, increased food production within the community provides better access to fresh food at lower prices as there is no need for warehousing or long-distance transportation.
Boosts Local Economy and Creates Employment Opportunities
Households save money by consuming their own produce. It also opens up the opportunity for them to earn an alternate income by selling excess produce. Entrepreneurial urban farmers who establish new businesses also create more employment opportunities within the community.
Additionally, a local study has shown that urban farming can offer economic and health advantages to the community by increasing their access to fresh food which stabilises their household food security.
Socially Benefits the Community
Urban farms provide an opportunity for people to gather and socialise by working together on a mutually beneficial activity. Besides improving access to food, leisure, recreation, and social bonding within the community are one of the top motivating factors for urban farmers to continue farming, according to a local study.
Urban farms provide a healthy escape for residents. It also can provide long-term mental and physical benefits such as increasing attentiveness, productivity, lower blood pressure, and improving the overall well-being of the community.
What to Consider before Setting up an Urban Farm
Urban farms are flexible and do not require a lot of investment to start. Nevertheless, there are things to consider before starting your very own urban farm to minimize mistakes along the way. Here are some of the important points to take note of:
Space is a valuable commodity in urban areas. You should plan properly to maximise your production output and also for any potential expansion of the space in the future. Besides that, you will also need to consider whether your urban farm would invade another person’s space if you are living in shared spaces such as an apartment or a linked house.
Location of the Farm
Then, you have to think about whether the location is ideal for your plants to grow. Is the space getting a lot of direct sunlight or is it getting more indirect sunlight? These will decide the kind of plants that you will be growing, as some fruiting vegetables require more direct sunlight compared to leafy vegetables. Besides that, you should also consider the easy access to water and how to drain any excesses.
What Vegetables to Grow
The difficulty of growing vegetables will scale depending on what you choose to grow. It would be easier, beginning with easy-to-tend crops such as spinach, water spinach for leafy vegetables and okra, eggplant, and chillies for fruiting vegetables. Leafy vegetables can be planted in planter boxes that are at least 6-inches above ground, while fruiting vegetables can be grown in grow pots or fabric grow bags.
Importance of Soil
Good soil is important to ensure the success of your urban farm. Soil is the foundation of agriculture. Good soil requires a proper composition to promote ideal growth. Many people would think that buying soil from a nursery would do just fine, but that is far from the truth. Soil with a good composition consists of a water retaining medium (Cocopeat), a balanced draining medium (sand), and organic matter (compost). Besides that, it should also have the ideal pH level between 6 to 7.
Knowing How to Sow Seeds
Different plants require different methods of transplanting seeds. Leafy plant seeds can be sprinkled onto the soil directly. You may also want to consider thinning leafy plants to allow adequate space for them to grow efficiently. As for fruiting vegetables such as cucumber and bitter gourd, the seeds should be sown directly into pots. There are also other fruiting vegetables that require you to seed them on a tray before transplanting them onto a pot when the leaves start to appear such as chillies, eggplants, and tomatoes.
Watering Your Vegetables
When plants do not get enough water they could wilt, but overwatering them could do harm too. Knowing when to water your vegetables is important, as this should be done consistently to ensure optimal growth. You can water your plants in the morning every day. You can get a watering can or hose with a “shower” nozzle so that the water is more controlled and does not damage your vegetables. Try not to water your plants in the evening as well, as the moisture could be trapped in the pot, exposing your plants to diseases or pests. Besides that, organic fertilisation should be done every two weeks, followed by watering.
Protect your Plants from Diseases and Pests
You can make your own organic pesticide to protect your plants from pests and diseases. Doing so ensures that the pesticide that you are using is completely free from chemicals that can be found in most pesticides bought from stores. Prepare a half-filled cup with water and add two tablespoons of neem oil and one tablespoon of hand wash liquid. Stir them well. You can then proceed to use the mixture to mist the top and bottom of the leaves twice a week during the evening.
Harvesting at the Right Time
You’re most probably thinking right now, “I’ll just harvest when it looks good to go”, but harvesting at the right time helps your plant to last longer. When you leave the fruit for too long and it over-matures, the plant withers earlier and this affects the quality of the produce as well. Leafy plants can often be harvested within three to four weeks while fruiting vegetables can be harvested when their fruits reach the ideal size.
Riding on the Positive Trend
Despite its early stages, urban farming is growing in Malaysia. The positive impact it brings could address supply-chain gaps and contribute to the nation’s food security and self-sufficiency. A growing number of privately owned urban farms are popping up within the cities. A bunch of Malaysians have been using some areas in their house compounds to start participating in urban farming. In fact, retail spaces have also begun to ride on the trend by converting their rooftop spaces into urban farms such as Central i-City in Shah Alam and The LINC KL, to name a few.