GROWING up, one of the surest ways to know that I have reached my grandparents’ house is the unmissable herd of cows and goats, and with them, the unmistakable sight of dung on the road.
I remember the look on my father’s face, as we rolled through the excrement in our car. Only much later in life would I realise that such is the expression of surrender, in the face of inevitable doom.
“This is about the only time we would have s*** on our tyres,” he would say.
I did not understand it then, but as time went by, I’ve come to realise the depth of his words.
According to the World Bank, in 2018, of the global gross domestic product of US$85.79 trillion, US$2.9 trillion was made up of the agriculture sector (3.419 per cent).
Imagine this for a change: Malaysia’s total GDP for the same year was US$354.35 billion. Divide this number with the global agricultural GDP, and we are looking at an economy that is eight times bigger than our nation’s total economic output.
That is a huge market to tap into, especially when you consider that we are a tropical nation, situated right at the equator. Another nation situated along the same latitude — Brazil — is among the world’s top exporters of agricultural products, making US$96 billion from this industry in 2017 alone.
The strength of agriculture lies in its relatively minimal requirement of capital and technical knowledge, which forms a low barrier to entry.
This makes it highly practical, hence a popular industry among rural communities.
Malaysia is no stranger to the agriculture industry. In fact, it is our natural competency in this area, aside from the Straits of Malacca, which had attracted the old colonial powers to our shores: the Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese and of course, the British.
I used to agree that agriculture is the industry of the past, and the future is home to flying cars, gigantic LED (light-emitting diode) screens and swift teleportation devices. But the same dreams of urban industrialisation had led to the ensuing nightmare of income gap, wage stagnation and urban poverty.
These glaring economic issues could be traced back to multiple factors, but chief among them would be the unequal distribution, as well as the concentration of wealth. And these two issues are almost synonymous with urban capitalism.
But if there is one industry that urban capitalism could never build its competency on, due to the obvious limitation of land, it would be agriculture. And this element, which urban capitalism lacks, is abundantly available in lesser developed states, especially in rural areas.
In this sense, channelling capital, private or otherwise, into building agricultural capacities in less industrialised states would directly empower the economies of these states. Since agriculture is a huge industry in low-income states, this would allow citizens of these areas an opportunity to monetise domestically, hence, closing the income gap between them and other, more developed parts of Malaysia.
Where capital redistribution goes, labour redistribution would follow, and this means our ability to unlock the value of undeveloped lands through agriculture can also provide urban dwellers, who are choked with the pressures of wage stagnation and high cost of living, an alternative to make a living.
At this juncture, it is worth noting that with the advent of modern agricultural technologies, the industry is no more the dirty, dangerous and difficult field it used to be — the three elements that have kept the masses at bay all this while. Just imagine how cool it is to be able to control your own drone, to water and harvest the plants from afar.
This dream is neither novel nor new. In fact, we have had the biggest proof of concept in this matter for quite some time, through the many lives that have changed under the Federal Land Development Authority’s resettlement scheme for the rural poor.
The orchards we marvel at on our way to our respective villages, the cows and goats that our children were pointing at, the fishermen carefully docking their boats in the shadows of the sunset — they are the living proof of an industry that has successfully withstood the test of time.
We have the land and labour. What we need is recapitalisation, and a sound commercial plan to reawaken the innate strength we have always had as a nation.
The world is growing, and a growing world needs the sustenance only agriculture can provide. And if the data released by the World Bank is anything to go by, we have more than 2.9 trillion reasons to do this.
The writer is the chief executice officer of Kedah Menteri Besar Incorporated