After months of planning, this past weekend saw Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng, representing Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, launch the new national food bank strategy in Penang. For a newly formed Government, this is an amazingly speedy development, and shows a real commitment to food redistribution and sustainability in Malaysia.
Time will tell what form this initiative will take. If executed well, Malaysia could be the trailblazer in the region. No other Asean country is leading in this area, even though some of them are major global food producers and have larger, more deprived populations. It is obvious this will have to change in the future, as food insecurity and food waste become increasingly pressing issues.
However, it is important the government does not rush into knee-jerk legislation. Measured and strategic thinking is required. If impractical laws are introduced, this would be such a lost opportunity. Around the world, developed nations are more advanced in scoping out mechanisms to optimise food donations. Each country has different rules, but one theme is prevalent: they all have tax rebates for donors.
To this end, the Finance Ministry could play a key role in the development of a workable framework. From the metrics of food donated, and the cost to government (Solid Waste Management & Public Cleansing or SWCorp) for food disposal, the savings are huge. So it makes sense purely from a financial perspective (in addition to the philanthropic aspect) to maximise donations.
Most countries in Europe tackle food waste using fiscal incentives (see table; find the full report at bit.ly/2QHqucH). One of the most recent additions is the British government, which announced a new tax in the 2018 autumn budget.
However, the front runners in tackling food waste by introducing specific laws are France and Italy – probably considered the most gastronomic countries in Europe. Two of the main differences between these neighbouring countries is that France penalises supermarkets and other food producers with fines for throwing away food. In addition, Italian food donors are allowed to donate food past the best before date.
I am not sure if Malaysia would be ready (or would have the budget) to enforce a penal system, so strictly following the French code might not be the most efficient way to maximise food donations. Malaysia has many smaller food outlets, and these businesses would not be required (under French law) to donate.
I believe the best way is through tax rebates. This would be the greatest method of incentivisation. Particularly to the smallholders whose profit margins are small, and have limited resources to facilitate the logistics and time needed to partner with NGOs in order to redistribute their surplus. If there was a small financial reward, this could be a game-changer.
Of course, the Finance Ministry would have to examine what percentage of tax donation would work best. This has to be done in collaboration with other ministries to calculate other additional savings that are made. What is very clear is that we can expect to see big reductions as a result. That is why all the developed countries are following this model.
The key aspect is how workable this could be in the field. How can all these transactions be tracked and independently verified? The way The Lost Food Project works in the Klang Valley gives a clue. As a non-profit food bank and despite being operated by volunteers, we have a robust accountability system in place to record all the food and non-food items being donated and where they are channelled. Records are checked at multiple points along the supply chain to provide independent verification. This is vital, the government should only be paying a rebate for food that is donated. There have to be systems in place to ensure that corruption or false data entry cannot prevail.
If there is a real desire to make this work, I think this can easily be achieved. There are many food banks working well in this field. The Government just has to support and partner with us to achieve the greatest outcome. Governments do not need to be running food banks. In almost every single country with a food bank programme, the Government supports the NGOs.
The Government’s main strength is putting in the framework to encourage donations, and the rest will follow.