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LETTER | Sky-high prices will lead to growing food insecurity

LETTER | In the past one month, my weekly grocery shopping at the market has been frustrating. I certainly feel the pinch of escalating prices.

Time and again, I hear of fellow consumers complaining about the shockingly exorbitant prices for vegetables while traders lament that there is nothing much they can do.

The price hike is attributed to limited supply due to lower domestic production as a result of unfavourable weather, pricier inputs, higher transport costs, manpower shortages and also higher import costs.

Indeed, the skyrocketing prices of vegetables by as much as 200 percent is very worrying.

This comes on the back of rising prices of chicken and eggs which contribute to a higher cost of living, adding to the woes of many households struggling to make ends meet.

The possibility of vegetable prices remaining high until after the Chinese New Year holidays will eventually lead to growing food insecurity.

Defined as a disruption of food intake or eating patterns due to limited money or other resources, food insecurity is also one of the root causes of malnutrition.

Vulnerable households

The pandemic has caused the number of undernourished across Malaysia to continue to rise, especially among vulnerable households which have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Affected groups include the Orang Asli, low-income earners and welfare-recipient households, and the elderly.

On the global scale, a projected 660 million people across the world may still face hunger in 2030 as a result of the lasting effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on food security, as reported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Even before the pandemic, Malaysia has been one of the very few Asian countries facing three forms of malnutrition, namely obesity, stunting and anaemia.

Specifically, the National Health and Morbidity Survey 2019 revealed that one in two (50.1 percent) adults are either overweight or obese, while slightly more than one in five (21.8 percent) children under five years of age are stunted and almost three in 10 (29.9 percent) women of reproductive age are anaemic.

More recently in February 2021, Deputy Education Minister Mah Hang Soon said that 25 percent of children in Malaysia are either underweight or stunted because of poor dietary habits while another 20 percent are overweight or obese due to inappropriate dietary choices coming from low-income families, including difficulties in obtaining food.

This alarming double burden of malnutrition in the form of stunting and obesity leads to long-term health effects, whereby the former results in greater susceptibility to infectious diseases and irreversible impairment in childhood development. Obesity, on the other hand, increases the risk of non-communicable diseases.

Poverty-nutrition trap

The substantial prevalence of malnutrition among children can lead to lifelong economic consequences including impaired learning potential, compromised future labour productivity and higher medical expenses, which reinforces a vicious cycle of intergenerational inequality.

In other words, this has resulted in vulnerable groups being caught in the poverty-nutrition trap.

As such, proactive measures in both the short- and long-term are needed to enhance food security in our nation, as a means to address nutritional inequality.

Specifically, Malaysia needs to take concrete steps to promote the availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods at reasonable prices for normal growth and the development of an active and healthy life.

In addition to immediate term price monitoring efforts such as Ops Pasar which seeks to prevent any form of profiteering at every level of the distribution network, we need to promote greater consumer awareness and an efficient market information system.

Besides, market failures such as the existence of cartels, the lack of competition and the prevalence of hoarding need to be effectively tackled.

Furthermore, import duties and tariffs on consumable items and intermediate inputs used in agricultural production should be reduced to lower input costs.

In the medium to long term, we need to build a more sustainable and resilient agri-food sector against any future shocks including poor weather to prevent disruption in production.

This can be done through increased investment in agricultural innovation and research and development for greater productivity.

All in all, we definitely need to prioritise food security and the availability of nutritious food at reasonable prices as we seek to grow a healthier society. There are no two ways about it.

How are we going to achieve the goal of a healthier Keluarga Malaysia in the recently announced Agenda Nasional Malaysia Sihat if prices of vegetables remain sky-high?

BENEDICT WEERASENA is an economist with Bait Al-Amanah.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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