What’s Happening in Malaysia #2: Organic Farming (Part Two)

This is Part Two of what we learnt from the organic farming public forum on 25 May, organised by CETDEM. Part One can be found here.

The public forum was held in Sin Chew Cultural Hall, and opened with an address by CETDEM Chairman Ir. Gurmit Singh, followed by a panel discussion with Dr. Anni Mitin from Persatuan Pengguna-Pengguna Standard Malaysia, Mr. Tai Seng Yee from Zenxin Organic Food Sdn Bhd, and Ir. Gurmit Singh, moderated by Pn. Aini Zakaria, former MARDI researcher. There was a Q&A session for about an hour after the panel discussions. The information below is based on the panel presentations and responses to questions from the floor.

How does the certification process work for Skim Organik Malaysia (SOM)?

When the farmer registers to the SOM committee for certification, the inspectors from Department of Agriculture (DoA) interview the farmer about the history of the cultivated land, and collect soil and water samples to be tested in Putrajaya. After 3 or 4 months, after the vegetables are planted, the inspectors will get samples of the vegetables to test for pesticides, heavy metals and microbes. They will also look at the farm for traces of beneficial predators, as part of the inspection. After 2-3 times of inspection in that year, the inspectors give the report to the accreditation officer. Random visits are made to the farms, and if the farm’s performance is satisfactory, the committee will give the certification. Each certification lasts for one year and has to be renewed.

Not all farms get the annual visits, which should be the case in theory. This appears to be a problem of lack of human resources in DoA. It is also mentioned by the panel that some auditors may not be fully qualified for the job.

Does SOM certification assure the genuineness of organic products?

There is room for improvement for the SOM certification, which is quite new as of now, with not many farms covered. It is difficult to guarantee that the organic produce meets full criteria of SOM because there is an absence of an independent audit of SOM. SOM does not cover the full supply chain from farm to table, and therefore SOM certified produce could be adulterated before reaching the consumer.

Some questions that arise therefore include: What is the level of integrity with retailers esp. when repacking? Can SOM labels be copied & misused? Will SOM certification of specific farm locations be misused to cover others belonging to same firm?

Logo of SOM certification

Logo of SOM certification (Source: The Star)

What are the challenges faced by the organic agricultural sector in Malaysia?

The panel highlighted a number of problems faced by the organic farming sector in Malaysia. This can be discussed from the following points of view:

  1. Government: There is insufficient support from the government. There has been no mention of the sector in the proposed 11th Malaysia Plan, for instance. There are almost no incentives in terms of land and loans, and SOM is not promoted well enough by DoA. More certification services are needed to support the growing number of farms. In terms of labelling, enforcement on clear organic labelling is weak.
  2. Producers: There are farmers who try to go organic without clear knowledge of what that means. The interest, even among big farms, is to produce for export and not for local consumption. There is also labour shortages at farms, with the younger generation being unwilling to participate in farming.
  3. Consumers: The consumers are unwilling to pay premium prices for quality organic produce.

What is the way forward for organic farming in Malaysia?

The panel recommended several ways forward for organic agriculture in Malaysia. Immediate improvements can be made in terms of providing research and development for organic farmers, and consumer education for the public. The government and corporations can provide land and soft loans to farmers, and also help direct labour to organic farms. Wholesalers and retailers can be more proactive in selling organic products, emphasising healthy food for healthy Malaysians – organic produce should first be sold locally, and surplus can be exported.

For deeper systemic change, it was recommended that the negative aspects of globalisation and free market should be resisted. Instead, fair trade should be promoted. Fundamental ecological and ethical principles should be reasserted, especially in production and processing systems. Small producers should have an effective role in decision-making and standards setting.

CETDEM Organic Farming Community Centre (Source: CETDEM)

CETDEM Organic Farming Community Centre (Source: CETDEM

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