When a widespread shortage of basic foodstuffs occurred worldwide in early 2007 and 2008, global commodity prices for wheat, rice, corn and soybean roughly tripled within a matter of months. The results of these price spikes rippled around the world and led to social unrest, ranging from the hijacking of dozens of truckloads of UN humanitarian grain shipments in Africa to armed guards protecting rice fields in Thailand to prevent rice rustling.
These events, and the instability that coincided with them, spurred the Bruneian government into action to safeguard against price spikes and possible food shortages in the future. This renewed urgency would eventually manifest itself locally in 2009 when His Majesty Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah called for self-sufficiency in the country’s staple food, rice, for which the country was almost entirely reliant on imports. Other major food items tagged for self-sufficiency are tropical fruits, vegetables, poultry meat and eggs. The availability and accessibility of edible foods also fits neatly into the country’s national developmental plan, Wawasan Brunei 2035, as an important element in eradicating poverty. By moving towards self-sufficiency, Brunei Darussalam should be able to mitigate a number of risks affecting its food supply, including high- and low-intensity conflicts and other supply-side risks. In addition, the country’s relatively small population, strong economy and stable government also provide the Sultanate with a good starting point from which to begin in spite of a number of challenges.
Although the country is largely self-reliant in terms of poultry and egg production, much of its primary staples of grains, rice and livestock have to be imported. This is particularly true of rice, of which the country consumed 34,311 tonnes in 2013, according to the latest available data from the Department of Agriculture and Agrifood (DAA). Of this consumption, just 3.61%, or 1237 tonnes, of demand was met by local production, requiring the country to import 15,414 tonnes of the foodstuff. Beef consumption is also rapidly outpacing domestic capacity, with locally raised livestock accounting for just 1.68% of the 5547.5 tonnes consumed in 2013; 26.97%, or 1496.22 tonnes, imported live; and another 71.35%, or 3958.19 tonnes, imported chilled or frozen.
As a result, Brunei Darussalam had to import approximately BN$600m ($470.82m) worth of food annually in 2012 and 2013, accounting for 13.26% of all imports, following a 7.14% increase of BN$40m ($31.38m) over 2011, according to Department of Economic Planning and Development (JPKE) data. Beverage and tobacco imports added on another BN$65.4m ($51.32m) and BN$61.9m ($48.57m) in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Much of this was sourced from the ASEAN region, from which the country imported a total of BN$2.3bn ($1.8bn) worth of goods in 2013, down from BN$2.33bn ($1.82bn) in 2012. This included 3000 tonnes of milled rice imported from Cambodia in 2013, and around 30,000 tonnes annually from Thailand.
In order to slash these food bills and boost the local economy, the government has recently rolled out a number of initiatives intended to move Brunei Darussalam closer to self-sufficiency. One of the keystones of this programme calls for a dramatic boost in rice production, with the government targeting 60% self-reliance in the foodstuff by 2015, compared to less than 10% in 2013, along with an earlier target of 20% by 2010 that was not achieved. This is to be accomplished primarily by boosting crop yields through the introduction of newer, high-yield varieties of rice and improving infrastructure, along with a modest expansion of cultivated land. The DAA is currently spearheading these efforts by coordinating with various public and private entities to employ agro-industrial research and development efforts, such as selective breeding, tissue culture and cross-breeding.
One of the most significant results of these efforts in terms of food security was the development and cultivation of new, more productive rice varieties. The first successful project in this vein was the creation of the local Laila rice variety, which was first introduced in April 2009 and can yield as much as 5 tonnes per ha, according to the DAA. This was later followed by another locally developed hybrid rice, Titih, which can increase yields from an historical average of less than 2 tonnes per ha to an average of 5-6 tonnes per ha.
The result of a three-year collaboration beginning in 2009 between the Ministry of Industry and Primary Resources (MIPR) and Singaporean firm Sunland AgriTech, Titih also boasts shorter gestation periods, higher nutritional value, greater adaptability to weather conditions, and is moderately resistant to disease and pests. Titih has an average maturity period of 115 days, an average height of 107.6 cm and an average yield of 5-6 tonnes per ha, according to the DAA.
Rice cultivation should be further boosted through a BN$21.7m ($17.03m) paddy irrigation project in Mukim Pengkalan Batu, which will source water from the Imang Dam and allow farmers to carry out double cropping, or biennial planting and harvesting. In addition to these successful ventures, Brunei Darussalam is also working in partnership with other countries and private sector companies to develop even stronger, higher-yielding rice varieties for future cultivation.
For instance, the MIPR carried out a study at the Paddy Research Plantation of the Wasan Agriculture Development Area in Mukim Pengkalan Batu on 10 Vietnamese rice varieties in 2013 in collaboration with the government of Vietnam. By testing for yield and suitability to the Sultanate’s more acidic soil, the DAA then selected the two most promising strains (OM 6162 and OM 7347) for large-scale cultivation across all four districts to further assess their compatibility in rain-fed paddies rather than irrigated land.
Considerable Growth Prospects
Although much of the impetus has so far been channelled towards boosting efficiency, the government also recognises that to achieve its self-sufficiency targets higher yields alone will not be enough.
While still restricted by a national edict limiting agricultural production to no more than 1% of the country’s landmass, the government has also freed up no more than 5000 ha of land for utilisation in the Sultanate’s rice initiative in accordance with the country’s development strategy, Wawasan Brunei 2035. In total, Wawasan Brunei 2035 calls for an expansion of rice production area from 2009 levels of 1368 ha to no more than 5000 ha through a number of initiatives. This will be further supported through government-funded infrastructure improvement and technological support.
The vast majority of rice production is carried out in the Brunei Muara District, and it is also home to many of the more innovative projects. This includes the Rice Farmers Field School (RFFS), which serves as a training centre for innovative farming techniques and management, including the development of new inbred and hybrid rice varieties.
A joint venture between the DAA and the Philippines’ Rice Research Institute, the RFFS educates farmers in subjects such as preparing fields for cultivation, planting rice seedlings, managing and identifying crop problems, correct use of fertilisers, pest and disease management, agronomy and post-harvest management. The RFFS is concurrently run in all four districts and is organised by the Agriculture Extension Units in each respective district
In addition to an expansion of its primary staple, other efforts are targeting complementary foods such as livestock and fresh produce. As the increasingly affluent population continues to make meat a larger part of their diet, Brunei Darussalam’s lack of livestock facilities provide a significant opportunity for local players to compete in the domestic market as an import substitute. Recent efforts by the government to promote this subsector include an MIPR initiative announced in March 2014 to commit 1000 ha of land to livestock farming, primarily to be used for intensive farming.
Other major projects include a plan for building a combined livestock, including a feedlot, and fruit tree farm in Tutong, and an MoU in September 2013 between China’s Guangxi Ming Ming Agriculture Company and local rice producer Asia Enterprise to build an agricultural industrial park in Brunei Darussalam to produce fruits, vegetables, rice, poultry and fish. As these programmes ramp up production, early indications of their impact are beginning to show up on the country’s trade balance sheets.
After a number of years of consistent growth, food imports began levelling off in 2013 and were even beginning to decline in early 2014. According to JPKE data, food shipments to the country in March and April 2014 were down year-on-year (y-o-y) by 44.5% (BN$26.4m, $20.7m) and 28% (BN$33.4m, $26.2m), respectively, before regressing with a 38.05% y-o-y increase to BN$65.3m ($51.24m) in May 2014.
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