"Convert empty spaces into urban farms in Malaysia"

Even as many ordinary Malaysians struggle to make ends meet arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, empty shop lots continue to mount along the streets and some even display signs that say “available for rent”. With the growing importance of food self-sufficiency, now is the time for Malaysia to turn empty spaces into urban farms – tackling food security-related issues besides making good use of the existing sites, writes Amanda Yeo, research analyst at Emir Research. 

Although Malaysia is rich in natural resources, we are highly dependent on high-value imported foods. Presently, our self-sufficiency level for fruits, vegetables and meat products stands at 78.4pc, 44.6pc and 22.9pc, respectively. With a lower occupancy rate in both retail and office spaces, property developers probably could redevelop the buildings for another usage – urban or vertical farming as done in Singapore with tremendous success.

According to the National Property Information Centre, the occupancy rate for shopping malls in Malaysia has dropped consecutively for five years. It declined from 79.2pc in 2019 to 77.5pc in 2020, the lowest level since 2003. Penang recorded the lowest occupancy rate at 72.8pc, followed by Johor Baru and Kuching (75.3pc), Selangor (80pc), Kuala Lumpur (82pc) and Kota Kinabalu (82.1pc).

In addition, the Valuation and Property Services Department revealed a lower occupancy rate at Malaysia’s privately-owned office buildings compared to the pre-pandemic era.

For instance, Johor Baru recorded the lowest occupancy rate of privately-owned office buildings at 61.9pc, followed by Selangor (67.5pc), the city centre of Kuala Lumpur (77.8pc), Penang (79.8pc), Kota Kinabalu (86.5pc) and Kuching (87.1pc).

Although Sunway FutureX Farm, Kebun-Kebun Bangsar and Urban Hijau, for instance, are good urban farming initiatives in the city centre of Kuala Lumpur, there are still many potential sites that could be transformed into urban farms.

Therefore, Malaysia perhaps can adopt Singapore’s approach by using hydroponics on roofs of car park structures and installing urban farms into existing unutilised buildings.

As it requires only a quarter of the size of a traditional farm to produce the same quantity of vegetables, the vertical rooftop system would yield more than four times compared with conventional farming. At the same time, it also reduces the need to clear land for agricultural use while avoiding price fluctuation.

Besides reducing over-reliance on imports and cutting carbon emissions, indoor vertical farming within the existing building also allows local food production as part of the supply chain. It could expand into workshops, demos, and expos besides offering guided and educational tours that promote the joy of urban farming.

Through urban farming structures inside a building, stressed-out office workers and the elderly, in particular, can enjoy a good indoor environment, air quality, and well-ventilated indoor spaces. They can also relax their mind through gardening and walking around urban farms.

To increase the portion of food supplied locally, the government needs to empower farmers and the relevant stakeholders, incentivizing the private sector in urban farming and providing other support through facilitating, brokering, and investing.

This in turn would enhance the supply and affordability of a wide range of minimally processed plant-based foods as suggested under the latest Malaysia Economic Monitor “Sowing the Seeds” report by the World Bank.

With the current administration’s laudable commitment to tackling food security-related issues, this would provide an opportunity for Malaysia to review the current national food security policy by addressing productivity, resources optimization, sustainable consumption, climate change, water, and land scarcity.

By putting greater emphasis on urban farming, the government could empower farmers to plant more nutritious, higher-value crops; to improve their soil through modern technologies application (i.e., Internet of Things, Big Data and artificial intelligence); and to benefit from increased opportunities by earning higher returns on their generally small landholdings.

Read the complete article at www.dailyexpress.com.my.

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