Plans to boost high-tech farming initiatives and enter into agribusiness deals with neighbours bode well for Brunei Darussalam’s long-term food security ambitions. However, challenges such as limited land and human resources will prove hard to overcome.
At a workshop on October 17, Hasnah Ibrahim, the deputy permanent secretary at the Ministry of Industry and Primary Resources (MIPR), called for the nation to focus on an “agricultural biotechnology” strategy to build capacity in agricultural and food production.
“Food security is one of the MIPR’s most important clusters and strategic initiatives,” she said, adding that one of the key ways to improve agricultural self-sufficiency is to use advances in science and technology, “through the application of biotechnology”.
In May, the Department of Agriculture and Agrifood (DAA) signed a deal to advance research and capacity in biotechnology, including recommendations for a legal framework concerning genetically modified (GM) agri-products and the possible establishment of a centre for agriculture biotechnology in the Sultanate.
Such advances will likely prove key to the government’s plans to achieve 60% food self-sufficiency by 2015. The issue is increasingly important, as the country currently imports some 80% of its food needs, including 97% of daily staple, rice.
There have already been some successes through the introduction of intensive farming training, improved infrastructure and the installation of irrigation pipes. As a result, rice production rose to 2140 tonnes in 2011 from 1649 tonnes the previous year.
“We would encourage people who have their own land and who are interested in padi [rice] farming [to get involved in the government’s rice-growing programme], and we would support them by providing them with the subsidies and the incentives that the local farmers get,” Mariam Omar, the acting assistant director of agriculture extension at the DAA, told The Brunei Times on October 16.
The Sultanate is also investing in neighbouring countries to improve food supplies and manufacturing, with plans to create large-scale farming projects in the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah to grow raw materials for various sectors. Only around 5% of Brunei Darussalam’s land area of 5765 sq km is considered viable for agriculture, with 75% of the country covered by protected tropical rainforests.
David Chen, a project manager at Singapore-based Sunland Agri-Tech, said earlier this year that such lease farming gives the Sultanate an opportunity to increase its supply and gain experience in hybrid rice technology.
“Overseas contract farming is a model Brunei can look at,” Chen told The Brunei Times. “Brunei has many bilateral relationships with many countries, and with the maturation of hybrid rice technology in Brunei, the technology could be brought to other nations where arable land is more abundant and production costs are lower.”
A rice breed developed between the DAA and Sunland is already raising expectations, with Chang-Xiang Mao, a professor at the Guangxi Academy of Agricultural Sciences, predicting in October that home-grown Beras Titih – named after the diligence and hard work of local rice farmers – could put the country on the map. “If we develop hybrid rice technology here, we can export to countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines,” Mao said.
In 2011, the MIPR announced plans to increase padi farm hectarage by 285% to more than 5000 ha from the current 1300 ha as part of plans to aims to raise self-sufficiency in the national staple to 20% by 2015. However, officials at the time admitted that land is scarce and rules on forest protection are strict.
Critics have also said that there is a need to improve “technical efficiency”. Fadil Galawat, a professor in the faculty of agriculture at Japan’s Kyushu University, in July 2012 completed a survey that found that average technical efficiency in Brunei is 76%, while “profit efficiency” could be improved by 19% through better use of resources and technologies.
The issue is likely linked to growing disinterest among younger generations in entering the agriculture industry. With many farmers reaching their retirement age, young Bruneians aspire to government jobs or other sectors, rather than join what they see as an outdated lifestyle.
Observers say that the government needs to respond by creating a more conducive environment for youth and graduate students so that they can go back to villages and get involved in farming.
While the number of initiatives to improve food self-sufficiency is indeed impressive, the government could do more to encourage private sector involvement in basic food production. This and an increase in lease farming should improve prospects of hitting ambitious targets.