Environmental News Archive

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Go after the black sheep, not the whole food industry

By : Johan Jaaffar
New Straits Times
9 June 2007

WE have heard these horror stories before — poultry farmers using cancer-causing drugs to hasten the growth of chickens. Pesticide-tainted vegetables and fruits being sold to unsuspecting consumers. Such stories make good headlines. The public was shocked. There was commotion among the authorities.
Let’s call it occasional food frights. Sadly, in the case of Malaysia, the accusations were made by parties who understand very little about the farming industry. Picking "a few independent farms" or parading "some farmers who have actually practised it" on TV will only bring disrepute to the entire industry, not to mention an economic backlash.

Take the case of the chicken broiler industry. Not many know how regulated the industry is in this country. It is the biggest component of the Malaysian livestock industry. In 2002, almost half a billion chickens with an ex-farm value of almost RM3 billion were in circulation.

Perhaps a third of these farmers are "contract farmers" for big "integrator companies" like Ayamas, Leong Hup or Sinma. The integrator companies will "buy back" live chickens after a period of time, deducting, of course, the various costs advanced to the farmers.

But setting up a chicken farm is not for the faint-hearted, for the cost is high and the requirements are very stringent. Naturally the integrator companies want value for their investment. Contract farmers are provided with everything — chicks, food, various disinfectants and vaccines. Even the cost of "health care" for each chicken is factored in — something around 30 sen. The integrator companies cannot risk bad publicity for the ways their farmers are rearing their precious chickens.
For those selling their chickens in the open market, the competition is understandably fierce. Quality is everything. The networking is well established. You can’t simply sell 5,000 chickens from your farm to a Pasar Selayang buyer. Beware: Never rock the chicken boat. On the other hand, chicken buyers are a choosy lot. They are as tedious as those buying a Ferrari or a Versace, believe me.

Naturally, the independent farmers out there are more difficult to control. After all, the government is kind enough to set a "ceiling price" for chicken in the name of price control. So, prices don’t fluctuate. Unlike all other things, come rain or shine, tsunami or typhoon, chicken farmers are not subject to market forces.

While contract farmers get a pittance for each live chicken, these independent farmers are laughing all the way to the banks most of the time. Naturally, there are rotten apples among them. Thanks to banned drugs like nitrofuran, beta-agonist and chloramphenicol being readily available in the market, unscrupulous farmers have a tendency to use them. So, totally stop the import of these drugs that were banned more than a decade ago, rather than blame chicken farmers.

Vegetable farming is trickier. Since there are too many small players with little plots scattered all over the country, it is almost impossible to regulate them. There is the possibility of vegetables being grown in unregulated conditions with respect to food safety. The fresh produce is purchased by all kinds of people and transported to urban areas often without much protection. In wholesale-retail wet markets and wholesale distribution points, this produce is graded and trimmed manually and sometimes under unsanitary conditions.

As far as vegetables are concerned, the three major points of concern begin at the growing site, transportation and distribution. These have yet to be addressed by the authorities. After all, the ministries do not have the manpower to monitor every single step of vegetable production. I agree with the chairman of Johor Baru Vegetable Wholesalers and Suppliers Association, Yeo Hang Pin, who recently said that sweeping statements by certain groups about the excessive use of pesticides were unkind and damaging to the industry.

Such allegations are not easily substantiated. How do you explain 400 lorries on any single day queuing to enter Singapore, a substantial number carrying fresh vegetables? Remember, Singapore has a European Union-like system of food safety compliance. Ok, there is also another conspiracy theory: Farmers have two different plots — one for export to Singapore and the other for local consumption. Good storyline for a Le Carre thriller, right?

I have always argued the case for better understanding of the agriculture business in this country, particularly regarding broiler chickens, vegetables and fruits. These items are the cheapest, fastest and most flexible way for humans to achieve any semblance of a balanced diet.

We import more than RM15 billion (the latest count) of foodstuff. We are importing RM190 million worth of livestock a year, RM844 million worth of meat and meat produce, RM1.2 billion worth of vegetables and RM550 million worth of fruits. By the way, we are importing RM201 million worth of vegetables from Singapore. Has anyone seen vegetable plots or orchards in Singapore? You figure that out.

But there is another equation to the "Singapore factor" in farming. The dark secret that many people would not want to talk about: Singapore money is financing many fruit and vegetable ventures in this country. Senator Datuk Dr Norraesah Mohamad raised the matter in the Dewan Negara recently. The closest she got to the truth was the ministry concerned admitting that Singapore money is financing ornamental fish and cut flowers.

Those familiar with the matter insist they are everywhere, from cultivating Cavendish to mangoes. There is even a joke among banana farmers — without having a single banana tree, the republic is one of the largest exporters of high-quality bananas to the world from this region. Why not? After all, they are exporting RM226 million worth of fruits to Malaysia, right?

The sad thing is, despite the prime minister’s determination to revolutionise the farming industry, very little is being done to complement him. Farmers have massive problems. Banks are still reluctant to look at farming as the Next Big Hope. Farmers have to deal with a shrinking number of farm hands.

More importantly, we have yet to adopt something like a safe quality food certification (SQF) as the standard marker of food production in this country. There must be mobile laboratories for random testing for pesticide residues and other matters. Consumers should avail themselves of these facilities in wet markets and supermarkets if they are in doubt.

In doing so, we will set a standard for fresh agriculture produce in this country. Let’s just penalise the black sheep, not the entire industry.