KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia's vegetable farmers have warned of a supply shortage in the coming months, as the current movement control order (MCO) has affected production processes.
Among the challenges faced by farmers and sellers include difficulties in purchasing supplies, labour shortage as well as a prolonged pause in farming due to the extended MCO.
Organic farmer John Liew told CNA that the vegetable farming industry is vulnerable, as it is made up of a chain of processes.
“In order for us to successfully farm, we need our suppliers who provide us with things like feed and fertilisers.
“But right now, with the movement restriction, all the agricultural shops are closed. Although I don’t need pesticides for organic farming, there are many other materials I source from them for my daily farming,” he said.
He added: "Of course there will be a shortage (going forward)".
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin had announced on Mar 16 that the nation would be under a MCO from Mar 18 until Mar 31 in order to contain the spread of COVID-19.
As part of the control order, Mr Muhyiddin announced that only those providing essential services were allowed to stay open with minimal staff.
Earlier this week, he announced an extension of the MCO until Apr 14, explaining that it was necessary as the number of new cases were still high daily.
Everfresh Agriculture managing director G Balamurugan said the shortage would affect at least 80 per cent of Malaysians.
“There is going to be some serious shortage and this is going to happen in about two or three months,” he predicted.
Mr Balamurugan, whose farm is located in Cameron Highlands, explained that most of the vegetables consumed domestically involved a three-month growing period before harvesting.
“We can harvest them sooner, as some vegetables can be harvested in about two months. But that is the minimum period before they can be harvested,” he said.
He added that besides the disruption to the production schedule, the closure of many morning markets during the MCO would also affect farmers financially, potentially putting some of them out of business.
LOSSES RUN INTO MILLIONS
Malaysian Vegetable Farmers Association's president Tan So Tiok told CNA that the 6,000 farmers in Malaysia face a cumulative loss of RM948,000 (US$221,000) daily.
He said that the 6,000 farmers are working on around 30,000 ha of land and producing about 960,000 tonnes of vegetables per year.
Of this, 23 per cent, or about 220,800 tonnes will be exported to Singapore, while the rest is distributed domestically.
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Mr Tan said that with the MCO, supply has been reduced by an estimated 30 per cent.
“We are unable to distribute to various markets (due to the MCO restrictions) and this constitutes losses of about 790 metric tonnes a day.
"The average price for one kilogram of vegetables is RM1.20. Therefore 790 metric tonnes would translate into RM948,000 in losses daily,” he said.
In enforcing the MCO, the government had also limited the number of foreign workers who are allowed to work in the markets.
Each vegetable seller is only allowed two foreign workers to assist them in the market.
Kuala Lumpur Vegetable Wholesalers Association chairman Chong Teck Keong said this has a huge impact on operations.
He noted that work in the vegetable markets is labour intensive, with manpower needed to load and unload up to 300 boxes of vegetables a day per seller.
“The City Hall has restricted our workers because they are mostly refugees and I can’t blame the government. They are doing what is best for the people.
“We usually have two shifts. To manage the current situation, we have hired some locals to help us. However, with the shortage of workers, we are already reducing the intake from the farmers for the time being,” he said.
With business doing poorly as restaurants are closed and people stay home, farmers and vegetable sellers are trying to minimise their losses and keep going.
Mr Tan of the vegetable farmers association said the Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority should help to absorb some of the excess supply right now, and coordinate with local governments to guarantee that supply is normalised.
“Besides that, the Ministry of Agriculture should restart production grants to farmers in order to reduce the cost of production.
“More agricultural land needs to be opened by the government for vegetable farmers to carry out sustainable cultivation,” he said.
Similarly, Mr Balamurugan of Everfresh Agriculture has called for the government to provide tax exemptions and tax breaks for farmers.
“This can be anything from land tax to income tax or even basic living expenses, just so that the economic burden could be reduced," he said.
Mr Chong, the organic farmer, also said the government should consider keeping morning markets open during the MCO, as this would help vegetable farmers to cut their losses.
“Each neighbourhood has its own morning market. This way, the government can avoid people gathering in the big markets," he said.
“People can just get what they need from their neighbourhood morning markets and go back to their respective homes.”