On Saturday, the six peninsular state of Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu, Negeri Sembilan, Selangor, and Penang, will their state hold elections.

Specifically, in Kedah, the state election will witness 36 seats contested by candidates from the Pakatan Harapan – Barisan Nasional (PH-BN) coalition, against Perikatan Nasional (PN) and several independent candidates. 

Based on data by the Election Commission (EC), there are currently 1,585,085 eligible voters in Kedah, the majority of whom are youths between the ages of 18 and 29, making up 29.05% (460,468) of the electorate.

Until the last general election (GE14), Kedah was in a state of tug-of-war between UMNO and Pas. However, Mukhriz Mahathir managed to build up the state administration while running under the Pakatan Harapan banner. Pas, however, took control after the "Sheraton Move".

Key issues affecting Kedah include labour market insecurity, poor management of clean water resources, widespread deforestation, youth migration and increasing poverty among semi-skilled and unskilled workers in rural areas.

Both coalitions have addressed some of these issues in their manifestos.

PN aims to create 100,000 competitive jobs in Kedah within 30 years (2053), highlighting that it can only create about 3,000 jobs a year in the state, which has a population of more than 2 million according to the 2020 census.

On the other hand, apart from highlighting the visions and goals for Kedah farmers, the PH-BN coalition has started its journey to "Make Kedah Great Again" by focusing on the core of Kedah, the agriculture industry.

The fine and dandy manifestos and work done by the PH-BN coalition over the past seven months have attracted the attention of the older generation, while young voters are more inclined towards the PN.

It is worth highlighting based on the recent 2022 poverty in Malaysia report by DOSM, Kedah has the highest incidence of absolute poverty in the peninsular after Kelantan. Kedah's absolute poverty rate was 8.8% in 2019 and increased to 9.0% in 2022, which was higher than Malaysia's absolute poverty line of 8.4% in 2022.

According to DOSM, the unemployment rate in Kedah has only decreased by 0.1% over the three decades - the unemployment rate was 4.5% in 1990 and 4.4% in 2020.

In addition, Baling, Sik and Pendang will be among the three poorest districts in Kedah by 2022. Compared to Langkawi's median income of RM5,250, Baling recorded a median income of RM3,400, followed by Sik (RM3,703) and Pendang (RM3,801) (DOSM, 2022)

The World Bank's latest report, "Catching Up: Inclusive Recovery & Growth for Lagging States", shows that Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, Sabah and Sarawak have the lowest average income and the highest incidence of poverty.

It appears that the caretaker Kedah menteri besar Datuk Seri Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor's claim to transform Kedah into "Greater Kedah" is mere political rhetoric as he has failed to improve his own district (Sik).

Known as the "rice bowl" or "Negeri Jelapang Padi" of the country, Kedah produces about 44% or 914,000 tonnes of the 2.356 million tonnes of rice grown nationwide, according to the Agriculture and Food Security Ministry (KPKM).

According to the International Trade Administration (ITA), Malaysia's agricultural industry is one of the most promising and lucrative with modern agri-tech applications.

However, policymakers have yet to fully recognise its potential for growth and contribution to the state, national and global economy.

The paradigm shifts

Sanusi has previously called for 20% of all paddy land in Kedah to be converted into industrial zones, ostensibly to increase government revenue and help people out of poverty, but this appears to be more of a populist use of 'buzzwords' without proper backing from data, science and technology.

This strategy will force many farmers out of business, which will reduce rice yields. Due to the current shortfall in domestic production, Malaysia imports 30% of its rice, and this latest policy development by the state of Kedah will further increase the country's dependence on imports.

Over the course of 35 years, our agriculture sector's contribution to GDP has declined significantly, from 20.3% in 1985 to 10.1% in 2016 and 7.4% in 2020.

Recently, the incumbent has announced that Kedah will become an industrialised state.

However, the latest poverty statistics released by DOSM show that the supposedly highly industrialised district of Kulim, with a whopping 64.7% employment rate and 2.3% unemployment rate, is shockingly the third highest high-poverty district in Kedah (11.4%), after Baling (14.4%) and Kuala Muda (13.8%).

investors tend to prefer Penang to Kedah due to its skilled workforce, robust supply chain, infrastructure and strong state government support.

In addition, 76% of Kedah's land is Malay reserve land, making it less attractive to investors due to restrictions and bankability.

Therefore, Kedah should first prioritise the development of its organic local community by upgrading its agricultural industry with modern agri-tech, which is known to turn agriculture into a lucrative business while empowering many smallholder farmers (see “4IR enabled farmers: Solving national food security” by EMIR Research, 2021) and and making the state, and Malaysia as a whole, a high-income nation.

Meanwhile, in the longer term, this would naturally also increase Kedah's level of industrialisation.

The above is particularly relevant in the context of the Malaysia Madani.

Here are some suggestions on how to restore Kedah's greatness through its agricultural sector.

1. Cultivating interest and empowering rural and young farmers in the agriculture industry

Malaysia faces challenges in involving youths in the agriculture industry as global crises prompt other countries worldwide to explore ways to involve them.

As of May 2023, data from DOSM reported that the unemployment rate of unemployment was 3.5 per cent (584, 600), and 448,600 people from this (nearly 77%) are youths aged 15 to 30 years (see “Labour force statistics report”, DOSM, May 2023).

Thus, generating lucrative and enthralling employment opportunities for youths in the agriculture industry is both essential and challenging for the state and federal government.

As highlighted by EMIR Research, making Agri sexy for the youth again and a particular focus on smallholder farmers is one of the significant trends shaping successful national food security strategies globally (see “Reinventing Malaysian Food Security Framework—Part 1, EMIR Research, December 12, 2022).

Based on EMIR Research’s food security model, this can be implemented through:

I. Short-term strategies - Upskilling and reskilling are essential for short-term strategies in urban farming, alternative fertilisers, soil conditioning, agritech tools, marketing, and supply chain management.

II. Medium-term strategies - Mix-and-match academic culture enables students from one discipline to minor in or adopt a different field, exposing them to short-term measures.

III. Long-term strategies - educate elementary and secondary students in agritech, farming, and animal husbandry, exposing them to lucrative industries and imparting fundamental knowledge.

The (DOSM) 2023 employee wage statistics show that agriculture was the worst performing industry in the first quarter of 2023. In March, the median wage of workers in this industry was RM2,022. In February, wages dropped to RM1,845 and in March to RM1,900.

Research also suggests that there is a need to make agriculture more dynamic and attractive than it is now in order to increase youth participation.

The involvement of local graduates in the Kedah state's agriculture industry is crucial to improve the position of the sector, which is currently the third largest contributor to the national GDP at 11% in 2022.

2. Diversifying plantation and product market of agricultural products.

The agricultural industry is experiencing a surge in demand and higher costs for inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers. The depreciation of the Malaysian ringgit and the onset of El Niño have led to extreme droughts and floods affecting countries such as India. This has led to increased demand, rising prices and reduced global food supplies.

Research indicates, when the price of fertilisers is increased by 1%, the overall production of rice and corn is decreased.

FGV Holdings estimated in 2020 that feed accounts for 60-70% of the cost of raising livestock in Malaysia, making poultry and fresh ingredients expensive..

According to MARDI, Malaysia imports 3.5 million tons (RM 5 billion) of corn annually.

More recently, KPKM planned to establish grain corn cultivation as an alternative to bran for livestock feed to reduce dependence on imported fertiliser.

Although corn is the preferred livestock feed in Malaysia, EMIR Research recommends the cultivation of sorghum as an alternative to corn for livestock feed.

Sorghum is a profitable, high-protein livestock feed and can be used to produce a variety of human foods such as cereals and bread. There is also a high margin of profitability due to low production costs, higher yields and a large market.

India and African countries are among the major producers of sorghum.

Sorghum is an example of a profitable agricultural crop with multiple options.

3. Providing critical infrastructure and services for moving food around from farm to market

Critical infrastructure in agriculture includes continuous water and power supplies, transportation of inputs and finished products, and high-quality pesticides, fertilisers and chemicals for crop production.

Farmers have been feeling the effects of climate change in recent years, but many are unaware of adaptation measures that can be implemented to reduce risk in the industry.

One of the challenges to climate change adaptation in Kedah, according to research involving farmers in the Muda Agriculture Development Authority (MADA), is the absence of government assistance (21.5%), followed by high adaptation costs (16.75%) and a lack of knowledge about the issue (13.75%) (see “Perception of Climate Change and the Adaptation Strategies and Capacities of the Rice Farmers in Kedah, Malaysia”, Environment and Urbanization ASIA, 10(1), 99-115, 2019)

One alternative that the federal government can consider is the installation of a solar-powered irrigation technology system that provides a reliable supply of water and energy for crops, benefiting rural and off-grid agricultural areas.

It will also increase agricultural production and provide a cost-effective solution for impoverished farmers, especially those in rural areas. This will be a wise investment in the agricultural sector as Malaysia experiences scorching weather almost all year round.

Africa is one of the regions where this technology has been widely adopted.

Lack of automation and technology adoption is hampering our agricultural growth, with low labour participation and low farm ownership being major drawbacks.

It is undeniable that any federal government that comes to power after the general elections will focus solely on settling farmers' debts instead of truly empowering them, which is now more important than ever.

As an alternative to providing relief and paying off the debts of these farmers as a short-term strategic relief plan, the state and federal government should focus on building and investing in infrastructure that will benefit small and young farmers.

Focusing only on providing financial assistance does not address the real problem of our farmers.

In conclusion, Kedah needs to recalibrate and refocus on growing the state's agricultural industry to make it an agro-economic state and a powerhouse supplier of agricultural products both domestically and internationally.

The upcoming state election provides an ideal opportunity for political parties and coalitions to explore realistic proposals that focus on Kedah's agricultural industry.

* Dr Rais Hussin & Jachintha Joyce are part of the research team of EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

** The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.