His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei Darussalam is clear about the task ahead: developing enough domestic capacity to feed its own population. The Sultan's latest call for Brunei to increase the role played by agriculture in the economy came in his address to the nation to mark the beginning of the new Islamic calendar year on December 28 last year.
"In the field of agriculture, we should upgrade our self-sufficiency status to a higher level than presently, consistent with the needs and growth," he said.
According to a World Trade Organisation (WTO) review issued in 2008, Brunei's agriculture sector accounts for less than 1% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with the country having to import up to 80% of its food needs. While other reports put agriculture's contribution to GDP at between 2 and 3.7%, the fact remains that Brunei is far from being self-sufficient in food production.
One of the factors that limit Brunei's agricultural output is the availability of land. The country's total land area is 5770 sq km, with part of this dedicated to urban developments and industrial sites. According to World Bank figures, less than 5% of Brunei's land is under cultivation, though this is almost double the 2.4% of 1994 and marginally higher than the 4.55% of the late 1960s and early 70s.
However, most of Brunei's landmass is locked up under the government's policy to protect the environment and preserve the natural wilderness. Under the law, a minimum of 55% of the country's land is set aside to ensure biological diversity, closed to all development.
Currently, according to official figures, 76% of Brunei's territory is listed as natural forest land, though some of this has been allocated to the country's small logging industry.
Due to these constraints, there is little Brunei can do to increase the actual amount of land under cultivation. Instead of quantity, it is the yields that Brunei is seeking to increase.
To this end, the state has come up with a plan to boost harvests. Under the 2007-2012 National Development Plan (NDP), $101m was allocated to the Agriculture Department to support investment in expertise and technology to boost farming production. As part of this move, an agricultural laboratory is to be established to monitor the health of livestock and crop safety.
Other measures include the setting up of a research centre to promote the production of halal foods, as well as to test that products are compliant with Sharia requirements. Additionally, work has been undertaken by the Department of Agriculture to assist farmers in the use of technology and newly developed practices to improve harvests.
The government considers that in the long term, the way forward lay in shifting from a primarily commodity-based sector towards a modern agri-business setting, putting greater reliance on agro-food processing as well as trading of agro-commodities, agricultural products and processed agro-food.
These efforts are bearing fruit to some extent. Brunei has achieved self-sufficiency in egg and poultry production, and can meet 85% of its local needs in vegetable and 33% of its tropical fruit needs. However, harvests of many other basic staples fall well short of requirements.
According to the Department of Agriculture figures, Brunei produces only 2.3% of the beef consumed, less than 8% of dairy products and just 3.15% of the national consumption in rice. In fact, rice production has fallen by almost 75% since 1977, when 4259 tonnes were harvested. Hadi DP Mahmud, a writer for the Brunei Times, reckons that Brunei's changing economy, which has seen an increasing focus on small businesses, industry and the financial sector, means that fewer young people are prepared to take up a career in farming. "The fact is, no matter how deeply rooted it is in our culture, farming as a lifestyle and a viable means to earn a living has become a thing of the past" he said.
Despite the governement's best efforts to improve yields, transforming the agriculture of a nation takes time. For this reason, despite the long-term move towards self-sufficiency, Brunei has acknowledged the fact that high levels of food imports will be a present factor for some time to come.
In its Agro-Vision 2023, a road map for the future of agriculture in Brunei, the Department of Agriculture stated that "other raw agro-commodities will be imported at world competitive prices from the nearby agrarian countries and beyond", though the plan says that local production is set to increase.
Given the constraints on agriculture, Brunei will remain a net importer of foodstuffs, but by developing a value-added agri-industry, it may be able to offset its overseas grocery bill and grow a profit.