Penang – A Rice Bowl State under Threat?

With the state’s economic development remaining broad, closer balancing of land use becomes more critical.

Paddy field at Bukit Merah, Permatang Pauh.

Seberang Perai has undergone much urbanisation over the last decade. This has led to concerns over land use: warehouses, industrial plants and housing have risen up in the municipality’s landscape, replacing its sprawling paddy fields. As land cost at designated industrial townships such as Perai, Bukit Mertajam and Nibong Tebal rises, cheaper farmland at the fringes become the next best option for expansion.

However, even with this rapid industrialisation, agriculture still remains the dominant sector in Seberang Perai, with over 50,000 hectares zoned as land for agricultural use in the State Structure Plan (RSN) 2020, making up 54.4% of land use in Seberang Perai, while 12.4% of the land use is designated for paddy farming.1

In 2016 Penang produced 148,297 metric tons of rice – among the highest in the country; annually, Penang is in the top three states that record the highest rice production per annum.

Most of Penang’s rice production comes from Seberang Perai. Nor Wahida Hassan, the assistant director of operations at the Penang State Department of Agriculture (JPNPP), confirms that the intensity of rice production in Penang is due to the state’s leading technology, infrastructure, and research and development initiatives in paddy farming.

JPNPP’s core business is in training local farmers to adopt good agricultural practices, which is promoted through the Malaysian Good Agricultural Practices (MyGAP) certification. The state department also supports the community with various paddy crop development programmes by providing agricultural input, such as fertilisers and semi-organic pest control, and drainage infrastructure in the paddy fields.

JPNPP works closely with other governmental agencies under the Ministry of Agriculture Incorporated , such as the Integrated Agriculture Development Area, Farmers’ Organization Authority, Kemubu Agriculture Development Authority, Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute, and Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority. The collaborative nature of both state and federal agencies is deliberate and is aimed at achieving a greater objective.

All Things Rice

A crucial source of food security in the country, the National Agro-Food Policy 2011-2020 aims to strengthen the paddy and rice industry by increasing the nation’s self-sufficiency level to 80% by 2020.2

To raise the intensity of rice production, the policy has laid out plans involving the use of high-quality paddy seeds, sustainable farming practices using the right technology, increasing mechanisation and automation, intensive research and development, and centralising the management of the paddy industry.3

JPNPP, with the support of the Integrated Agriculture Development Area of Penang, anticipates a reduction of 5.97% of the 12,782 hectares of paddy fields in Penang for the year ending 2017.4 The reduction is attributed to the conversion of rice cultivation areas for other uses, such as housing developments, industrial open fields, oil palm plantations, bird’s nest harvesting, general infrastructure and more. Housing development ranks at the top of the list.

“JPNPP often opposes any proposals to convert paddy farmland for other uses. However the jurisdiction to allow such applications remains with the city council and the district office,” Nor Wahida says.

Most of the paddy farmers who have been running their rice production business for generations are often not the land-owners. These “First Grade” lands are owned by separate entities, sometimes having different lot owners in a single paddy field.

In Penang, lands with the “First Grade” title do not have a category of land use, such as for agriculture or industry, therefore making it unnecessary for the owner to seek permission from the state government for conversion.5 Although these lands may have been carved out as rice cultivation areas in RSN 2020, the contradiction with the “First Grade” title complicates matters. “By the time our officers discover that agricultural lands are being used for other purposes, it is often too late as the land has already been converted and restoring them to the original state that is suitable for paddy farming would be too time consuming and costly,” says Assistant Agriculture Officer of JPNPP, Abdul Rani Hassan.

Dr Afif Bahardin, the state executive councillor for Agriculture, Agro-based Industries, Rural Development and Health, adds that the challenge the state government faces in resolving massive encroachment on paddy farmlands is enforcement. “Most of the uncontrolled conversion of paddy fields is caused by illegal and irresponsible developers. Often they will proceed with construction works without application and approval from the necessary state departments.”

The state government has taken legal action against developers who had illegally begun construction work on active paddy fields and instructed them to restore the land to its original state. “They (the developer) disappeared and the original condition of the land was never recovered,” Afif says.

Tan Ah Chooi, on his bike. Tan, in his mid-seventies, inherited the paddy business from his father.

The expansion of urban development has brought about more economic opportunities for the local communities. The downside is that farming is no longer an especially attractive career for the young. “If I stop farming, that would be the end of my business,” says Tan Ah Chooi, in his midseventies. He inherited the paddy business from his father and left school early to pursue what was then a lucrative business. His son does not share a similar ambition: he chooses to work at a factory instead.

“This lacklustre occupation does not appeal to the younger generation. It is a tough and laborious job,” says Afif. “If you can earn RM1,500 a month working at a factory as opposed to RM3,000 to RM9,000 per paddy farming season (six months), which would you prefer?”

As more young graduates pursue opportunities in other fields, the state government finds it challenging to maintain and sustain paddy-planting areas. The demand for industrial land, on the other hand, is on the increase.

To add to the problem, there is climate change. Referring to the November 4th floods, Tan says he has not seen such devastation since the early 1990s. “The El Nino drought and sudden floods have further deterred us farmers from persisting in this business. On top of that, land rental prices are gradually increasing as industrial development inches closer and closer to our paddy fields,” Tan says.

The state government is currently drafting the Penang Agriculture Policy 2018-2020, which includes looking into how it can capitalise on the boom of Industry 4.0, harnessing big data and channelling highquality information to the implementation plans for the agriculture sector. “Besides working on increasing the resilience of the paddy irrigation system and flood mitigation strategy, we should also focus on further studies and research on new breeds of paddy which are less dependent on the weather,” Afif says.

As for agriculture land protection, PlanMalaysia@PulauPinang, under the Penang Town and Rural Planning Department, is currently reviewing the Penang Structure Plan 2030 while the Penang Island and Seberang Perai Draft Local Plans are in the process of being gazetted and were earlier reported to be completed in the year ending 2017.6 The Seberang Perai Municipal Council’s role as part of the Review Committee for the Penang Structure Plan includes identifying existing rice cultivation areas in both agriculture and development zones to be rezoned to Paddy Field Protection Area in the PSP 2030 Draft. With the structure plan, local plans and agriculture policy currently in drafting or under review, it is imperative for the respective departments to align their roles and objectives to ensure the sustainability of Penang’s rice and paddy production.

With such an audacious national goal at hand, Penang’s role in achieving the 80% self-sufficiency level by 2020 is crucial. Although the state’s annual average yield of paddy production is not dependent on land area but more on the mechanism and method of paddy farming, maintaining the rice cultivation areas is critical. It is now paramount to relook the strategy for the paddy industry, not only in terms of land use, but also capacity building and leveraging on technological advancements.

1 Penang State Structure Plan 2020.
2 The National Paddy Conference 2017
3 National Key Economic Areas (NKEA), EPP 11
4 Penang State Department of Agriculture (JPNPP) – report to be released in 2018
5 practice/land_policy_thats_no_walk_in_park.html

Stephanie Kee is a PJ-born gal who moved to Penang to bask in its enthralling sights, sounds and smells. Currently working on the Penang Art District project, she also tries to delve into the complexities of Penang's flourishing local arts scene.

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