Malaysia and the Lure of ‘Smart Farming’

During an October trip to Azerbaijan, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was wowed by a visit to a high-tech farm belonging Azersun, a major agribusiness conglomerate stretching from farming to food production to retail. The 35-hectare farm the premier visited grows vegetables such as tomatoes, chilies, eggplant and cucumbers using state-of-the-art technology that has become known as “smart farming.”

Mahathir was impressed enough to suggest that private firms and government-owned companies including the national investment fund Khazanah Nasional should invest in similar operations in Malaysia. Mahathir’s longtime adviser Daim Zainuddin has also talked recently about the revival of Malaysia’s long-neglected agriculture sector, saying that agriculture should be made “sexy” in the sense that ventures into agriculture have to be profitable.

Daim suggested that in fact, the country should venture into smart farming involving the use of better technologies, adding that a new one-stop agency should be implemented to steer Malaysia into the field. But he also cautioned that success cannot be expected overnight.

Personal knowledge

When the prime minister suggested that the country gets into high-tech farming, the subject was resoundingly familiar to me. Before we embark on this new venture, perhaps we should first pause and try to understand what is high-tech farming, how it can benefit the country and what the pitfalls might be.

I can share my own experience. I have been growing vegetables in my own experimental farm in Lojing in the northeastern state of Kelantan since 2012. Situated at an elevation of 1200 meters above sea level, Lojing Highlands, which is about 20 km away from Cameron Highlands, is the biggest vegetable growing area in the country. The cool temperatures of the highlands provide ambient weather for growing vegetables.

In Lojing, I undertook my own experiments growing various crops using soil-less methods and invented a vertical farming system. I tried indoor farming to grow green leafy vegetables under LED lights and to grow mushrooms in a controlled environment inside cabins.

Several government agencies visited my farm and generally, their officials were excited about the prospects of modernizing agriculture. Even the MDEC – the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation tasked with organizing and leading the digital economy, sent their people to solicit proposals for “precision-farming supported by the digital technology.”

High-tech farming is sprouting everywhere in advanced countries, promising better efficiencies. Theoretically this so-called “smart farming” involves the integrated use of automation and intelligent farm operation and monitoring systems. It integrates the use of smart sensor technologies, precision usage of farming inputs such as water and nutrients and the careful regulation of the environment (light, air, temperature).

These technologies, enhanced through computers and data streaming devices, are designed to enable farmers to detect early biotic stress and take timely remedial actions, even from remote locations.

Such are the promises of high-tech farming, which is perhaps best suited to the plantation industry where the size of the cultivation areas matters most. Remote sensing devices such as hyper-spectral imaging systems will be useful to monitor crop performance from a centralized location in a huge plantation. The rice cultivation sector would also benefit greatly from the use of remote sensing technologies, provided that small paddy lands are amalgamated into large single plantations. Any kind of automation has been long anticipated to reduce the use of foreign labor in these sectors.

High-tech farming involves considerable capital investment. It is the domain of large scale agro-food companies, not small-scale farmers in kampungs, where vegetable farms and fruit orchards are vulnerable to weather, an important determinant in the emergence of crop diseases and pests.

No matter how much technology we bring to the farmers’ aid, they will be fighting a losing battle each time a disease outbreak occurs. For vegetable farmers to employ high-tech farming, first the farms must be centralized in agriculture parks such as the existing Taman Kekal Pengeluaran Makanan (TKPM) around the country. Controlled environments such as the use of rain shelters and greenhouses are necessary given Malaysia’s high rainfall.

As to whether should Khazanah or other GLCs invest, my answer is simple. Please undertake a thorough study prior to making heavy investments. Please carry out pilot scale trials first before investing in large scale operations.

Khazanah should learn from its billion-ringgit investments in Blue Archipelago, prawn farming in Kerpan and Setiu. These investments were supposed to modernize prawn farming through the use of state-of-the-art technologies. The thousands of acres of ponds in both areas are still struggling to break even until today, partly due to the outbreak of the Early Mortality Syndrome disease.

Technology is not a panacea for everything. Market structures, the supply chain, and the sales and distribution of agriculture products from farm to table remain the fundamentals in any agriculture economy. Khazanah has attempted to address this issue through its subsidiary Malaysia AgroFood Corporation (MAFC), which has farms in Cameron Highlands and is invested into supply chain networks, as well as embarked upon packaging and branding of their vegetable products. However, according to the Auditor General’s Report of 2015, MAFC suffered a cumulative loss of RM447.84 million (US$107.3 million).

Whenever a new technology comes to town, it’s the technology owners that will benefit first and foremost, not the farmers. Most likely these technologies are foreign-owned. Perhaps Malaysia should first invest in developing its own indigenous technologies rather than “buying” from abroad. The Ministry of Agriculture’s hands are full at the moment, as are Khazanah’s. The sovereign wealth fund should not be burdened by this task. Perhaps the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation and its agencies in collaboration with the Malaysia Agricultural Research and Development Institute and the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry should develop a pilot scale project before running the risk of wasting billions of ringgit, which has happened far too often, to obtain a proof-of-concept.

Dr. Wan Izzuddin Sulaiman is a retired entomologist and former scientist at the Malaysian Biotechnology Corporation. He is now an active farmer and facilitator of social enterprise in sustainable agriculture.