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Mapping Malaysia’s road to food nationalism

Experts say it is nothing out of the ordinary for countries to implement such practices.

Ahmad Mustakim Zulkifli
3 minute read
A customer hands over his choice of fresh chicken at a poultry stall at the Datuk Keramat market in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia stopped exports of chicken this month amid disruptions in production and costs.
A customer hands over his choice of fresh chicken at a poultry stall at the Datuk Keramat market in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia stopped exports of chicken this month amid disruptions in production and costs.

The ongoing food and supply crisis around the world has seen countries cutting off exports in a bid to conserve enough for their own citizens – a move generally termed as food nationalism.

The crisis which began with the closure of borders due to Covid-19 has been exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, adding to food inflation and putting global food supplies at risk as the conflict between the world’s third and fourth largest grain exporters rages on.

In Asia, India has moved to block exports of wheat while Indonesia, the world’s largest top palm oil producer, imposed a now-lifted ban on exports last month in a bid to ease prices and boost domestic supplies.

Most recently, Malaysia halted all exports of chicken, a move which authorities said would remain in place until local production and costs stabilise.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that a number of countries will soon be faced with food shortages, making the situation worse for more than 800 million people throughout the world already grappling with such problems.

Against this backdrop, a debate on the need for food nationalism or food protectionism has re-emerged.

Malaysia’s Food Security and Sovereignty Forum said food nationalism is not necessarily at odds with democratic principles as governments are responsible for first guarding the interests of its own people.

Forum coordinator Nurfitri Amir Muhammad said food nationalism is in fact a form of economic protectionism already practised in the country through measures such as subsidy policies, import quotas, licences, tariffs and price controls.

“It’s nothing out of the ordinary for countries to practise food nationalism,” he told MalaysiaNow.

“It’s about the authorities’ political survival so that the country remains peaceful.”

He compared this to the move by European countries as well as the US to stockpile Covid-19 vaccines – a decision that drew criticism from a number of quarters including the World Health Organization.

“It’s the same issue – protecting national interests so that they can remain in power,” he said.

“This is a normal human reaction. National policies must prioritise the local production of food, not the open market.”

Chee Yoke Ling of research organisation Third World Network said food nationalism presents a dilemma for many countries which need to balance their needs with their exports to countries that do not produce their own food.

“It’s a deeper problem of insufficient domestic food production and increasing dependency on imports, resulting in spikes of food shortages caused by a range of vulnerabilities,” she said.

“These include natural disasters in food exporting countries, drops in production due to the rising costs of agricultural inputs, wars such as the Ukraine-Russia conflict, and border lockdowns as in Covid-19.

“We cannot blame a government for restricting exports so that its own population has sufficient food.”

Geopolitical interests

Even as countries begin to look more towards their own citizens, others have been seen as riding the food crisis for geopolitical interests.

Thailand and Vietnam, for example – counted among the world’s top rice producers – are reportedly seeking to cooperate to increase the export price of rice as part of efforts to boost their power at the negotiation table.

Nurfitri said Western countries are averse to food nationalism, which they see as unprofitable in terms of trade freedom.

“They want to invest and conduct business in Malaysia without certain controls, which threatens industry players and the country’s food sovereignty,” he said.

He also spoke of pressure on countries to move towards an open market which is exposed to exploitation and global economic effects through trade pacts such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Chee agreed, saying countries that had practised vaccine nationalism were the same ones which hit out at others for prioritising their people through food nationalism.

She referred to the ongoing debates and discussions in Geneva ahead of the 12th ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization.

Nevertheless, she added, there appeared to be no black and white solution to the issue.

“The way forward is through genuine cooperation and trust building on every front among the global community,” she said.

“The long-term solution to food shortages and the crises of food importing countries is a set of policies and measures that maximises domestic food security.”