Economic Update

Brunei Darussalam is moving to strengthen its food security, working to increase production of vital crops at home while also looking at the option of investing in farms and agriculture facilities overseas to ensure the nation’s staple requirements are met.

On March 2, the Second Minister of Finance Pehin Abdul Rahman Ibrahim raised the issue of the Sultanate’s food security while speaking before the Legislative Council. “Earlier this year, the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation reported world food prices hit their highest level ever recorded in January and were set to keep rising in the months to come, a strong signal of an imminent severe global food crisis,” he said.

Brunei Darussalam is working to protect itself from any such crisis, and has made solid progress in improving domestic production. The Sultanate is now able to meet up to 97% of local vegetable requirements and just over a third of all fruit demand. However, despite a stepping up of state support, local producers are still working to narrow the gap when it comes to rice, one of the country’s staples.

In recent years the government has moved to diversify its sources of rice imports, which currently meet up to 90% of local consumption. Shortages and spiraling costs in the second half of the last decade prompted the government to import grain from Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as from Thailand, a more traditional source.

Another move that Brunei Darussalam hopes will help to guarantee food security is to enter into joint ventures with neighbouring countries to own and operate farms beyond its borders. With officials acknowledging that the Sultanate will have to import rice to meet its domestic needs, despite plans to increase self-sufficiency to 60% by the middle of this decade, ensuring the long-term flow of supplies is a matter of priority for the government.

According to Minister of Industry and Primary Resources Pehin Yahya Bakar, Brunei Darussalam could enter agreements to establish agricultural areas in foreign countries, growing rice and other crops to meet “national necessity” requirements.

“We are looking at options,” he said in an interview with The Brunei Times on March 8. “There have been proposals from other countries, such as the Philippines, Indonesia and even Malaysia, to invite us to look at farms and facilities for a possible joint venture or possible ownership and production there.” This is a path a number of Middle Eastern states have already gone down, with state-backed wealth funds and private corporations investing in agriculture in Africa and Asia.

The Sultanate is already working to build on existing ties with other countries so as to improve various aspects of its primary production industries. In late February Brunei Darussalam signed a memorandum of understanding with Indonesia aimed at boosting cooperation in agriculture, with sustainability, food security, pest management and capacity building among the key areas to be jointly developed. Earlier the same month local media carried reports that state officials were considering utilising an irrigation system developed by South Korea to raise domestic rice output.

The minister’s comments came the same day that he announced that the country had missed its planned rice production target for 2010, falling short of the 20% self-sufficiency level set at the beginning of last year. Addressing the Legislative Council, he said that, while production levels were well up on the 3.1% of total needs met in 2007, output was lower than hoped for, although the exact figure was not revealed.

The minister cited a number of reasons why the rice harvest fell short of expectations, with heavy rain, pests and crop infestation all taking a toll. However, most of all, it was the slower-than-expected pace of opening up land for rice cultivation that held back production, he said. While the ministry had planned for up to 2360 ha to be planted for rice in 2010, last year’s total was just 1355 ha. Yields from the land cultivated were also below expectations. Instead of the projected 3 tonnes per ha, the average harvest per ha in 2010 was just 1.4 tonnes.

To help growers improve production the government will be making it a requirement that all rice farmers attend authorised training courses. Conducted by the Farmers Field School, the programme will include training on pest management, irrigation, diseases and post-harvest practices.

Though Yahya accepts that the 20% self-sufficiency level for 2010 was a tall order, he described it as a driving force to push farmers to achieve higher output, and said the target served to motivate growers. “The end product is not the 20%, it is for everyone to get interested,” he said.