In recent decades, the growth of the cities and new housing estates has brought a proliferation of f&b outlets to the Klang Valley and beyond. Traditional kopitiams have gone mod and given birth to franchises all over the country. The third-wave coffee trend brought a rash of cheerful cafes into our neighbourhoods. Even fancy-pants fine dining restaurants moved into the more residential areas. Then came the food truck invasion.
We hardly need to travel 200m to find food. Food is everywhere. On TV, food shows are being aired 24/7. It populates our Instagram, Facebook and mobile devices. Our vocabulary has expanded with new words like macaron, cronut, okonomiyaki, bibimbap, iberico and tapas.
We are more in touch with food than at any other time in history. Everyone is an expert in food. We know where to find the dirtiest zang zang bao. More of us are more willing to spend more on a restaurant meal. We are more willing to eat out more often. Heck, we’ve even moved meetings from the boardroom to a café nearby. The food show is probably the greatest show on earth right now.
On the glitzy side, it looks like food security has hit an all time high – easily available, affordable and pretty good. On the flip side, the side that most diners don’t see, more food gets thrown away every day. And what we don’t realise: We obsess over the looks of our cupcakes more than the taste or nutrition. We are eating more salmon than kembong. Kale instead of kailan. We are cooking less and less.
Step back to a post-Merdeka time and I’m in a vegetable plot wielding a watering can. Food security is about growing our own vegetables in the front garden and rearing chickens and ducks for eggs and meat in the backyard. Every good housewife goes to the wet market in the morning and cooks for the family. Supermarkets are not yet born. Eating out is unheard of. Frugality is the biggest game in town and nothing gets thrown away.
Looking at the huge mountain of trash that we generate today, I have to think the old way of life is way more sustainable. In my parent’s house, any leftover food was recycled the next day. Excess rice got fried with sambal and egg into aromatic sambal fried rice; leftover fish or meat was shredded and fried with garlic, onion, chillies, etc into a kind of gloubi-boulga, beloved food of baby dinosaurs. Leftover vegetables became party food for the feathered community in the coop, fish bones went to the cats and bones, the family dog.
Even used bath water got a second life. The house was built such that the water runoffs could be pooled in a sort of dam aka longkang. This enriched water was then used to hydrate the kitchen garden. The poop from the coop became fertiliser – we didn’t know about composting then or I’m sure my dad would have been a master composter. He was imaginative enough. We didn’t have a toilet upstairs in those days and the golden potty mix was sometimes diluted as the ultimate fertiliser. Perhaps the old house was designed on purpose that way.
Needless to say, the garden thrived. We had enough organic vegetables to share with the entire neighbourhood – only we didn’t call it organic then. And they knew how to rotate the different vegetables to keep the soil robust and intercropping to keep the pests away. Although none of us inherited this knowledge, we developed a love and respect for the land and growing a garden. We can all appreciate nature and understand how we – domestic animals included – depend on each other. And we know how much hard work it is to grow food.
While all this was done in the name of frugality, the old way was perfectly right. How did we get from there to being a nation that throws away 15,000 tonnes of food, equivalent to eight football fields, daily. Of this, 3,000 tonnes are food that is still edible and if saved, can feed 2.2 million people three times a day. Of Malaysia’s 31.8 million people, 0.6% (about 200,000) are living below the poverty line; that means the wasted food is enough to feed all the poor in the country.
I called up Dr Ainu Husna MS Suhaimi, head of the MYSaveFood Secretariat at the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi) for some answers.
“When I was growing up, my father used to tell me about the difficult period prior to independence. How food was scarce, and how the one meal was often just ubi kayu and ikan masin – tapioca root dug out from the ground and little river fish preserved in salt.
“Not many of us went through that as only 6% of the populace was born before independence. But many more of us lived it vicariously through an older member of the family. Our generation gets it that food insecurity is dreadful. To be avoided at all cost.”
From that point, improving food security has been an important agenda for the country. Good and nutritious food should be easily available, accessible and most importantly, affordable for all. To this end, the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry (MOA) and its agencies such as Mardi, Department of Agriculture (DOA) and the Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority (Fama) have worked to increase food production in Malaysia. Among the strategies taken are the development of quality seeds, breeds and varieties, embracing and developing new technologies, policies and SOPs to increase quality and yield.
This is still work-in-progress. Malaysia is not yet self-sufficient in many food commodities. We are in trade deficit and spent RM46.7bil on food imports in 2016. Despite footing so much for food, we then waste a large part of it.
“And that is why the work of NGOs such as The Lost Food Project, Food Aid Foundation and GrubCycle to rescue this surplus food is invaluable. Reducing food lost – and food waste – is one way to improve our food security,” says Dr Ainu.
In 2016, 7.9% of rice produced in Malaysia, valued at about RM246mil, was lost from the harvest during the milling, transportation and storage stages. “Reducing just 1% of the post-harvest loss will be able to provide a year’s supply of rice to 340,000 people.
“In theory, if food loss of rice can be reduced, more local rice will be available to the market and rice importation can be cut. The same theory can be applied to fruits and vegetables. The trade deficit for rice, vegetables and fruits for Malaysia in 2016 is approximately RM7.5bil and reducing it will really benefit our country.”
A concerted effort by all parties is needed to reduce food loss and food waste, says Dr Ainu. “The various government ministries need to work together to identify critical areas and address them.”
She says MYSaveFood networks with other agencies to create awareness to help reduce food lost and food waste in the country. To date, more than 150 partners have pledged to work together and more than 90 awareness programmes have been carried out.
Five things you can do to improve food security
- Reduce food waste at home and at the restaurants
- Eat local, support local farmers
- Eat a more varied diet
- Grow your own food