Challenges of Sustainable Agriculture in Malaysia

Challenges of Sustainable Agriculture in Malaysia

Research Analyst: Adrian Tan


As the world population expands, so does the amount of food consumed, resulting in greater food waste than ever before. Climate change and the pandemic clearly demonstrate the necessity of building sustainable agriculture. Both can cause crop shortages around the world, causing prices to soar. This has a major effect especially on the low-income group by raising the cost of living. As a result, sustainable agriculture is critical since it examines not only the economic but also the sociological and environmental consequences. As a result, the agriculture sector is critical to sustaining a nation’s prosperity and development.

Background of Malaysia’s Agriculture Sector

Malaysia’s economy revolved around agriculture in the 1970s, and the country is still known for its palm oil and rubber to this day. However, its contribution to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) would slowly dwindle. To date, Malaysia’s agriculture output is now the third largest, trailing behind the service and manufacturing sectors. This is not uncommon, as agriculture was used to initiate the drive of the country’s economy towards industrialization. Although the agricultural sector is no longer the backbone of the country’s economy, it serves an important role in providing sustenance to the country’s population. However, the lack of policies has left the agriculture sector unchecked and given rise to issues such as the cost of the environment and labour shortages.

Challenges of Sustainable Agriculture

Emphasise on Cash Crops & Monoculture Farming

Malaysia’s agriculture primarily consists of oil palm, rubber, and cocoa which are cash crops instead of fruits and vegetables. These cash crops do not aid in food security. The focus on cash crops forces Malaysia to depend on imports, as the local supply cannot meet the demand and needs of the local market. This is further highlighted in rice, although rice is a staple in the Malaysian diet, the country depends on imports for 30 percent of its rice demand. Hence, Malaysia lacks self-support in its policy when it comes to food security.

Furthermore, monoculture farming cash crops has been stuck to Malaysia like glue since colonial times, becoming a pillar of export. Monoculture farming uses a single species that usually produces a high yield, but it is genetically engineered to only achieve a high yield in specific conditions. Therefore, the issue with monoculture farming is its specialised genes, which pose a threat due to a lack of adaptability to ever-changing conditions, whether it be climate change or new diseases.

Moreover, monoculture plantations, although technically a “forest”, plantations cannot be considered so. A forest needs to consist of a variety of flora and fauna, while a monoculture plantation has only a single species at a time, which needs aid from herbicides, bactericides, and insecticides to reproduce the way nature protects crops. The lack of variation and usage of herbicides, etc., reduces natural nutrients provided by the flora and fauna, such as nitrogen-fixing legumes that can reduce soil erosion and cause diseases to resist the chemical compound respectively. After a few years, once enough damage has been done to the land, the forest will be cleared out for the next cycle to continue. Sustainable agriculture should strive to reuse the land used. Although monoculture farming is efficient, it cannot be considered a sustainable source, because monoculture farming depletes the nutrients and degrades the soils of the land.

Usage of Migrant Labour

There is a lack of sustainable employment in the agricultural sector. The development of Malaysia has also led many from the countryside to migrate to urban areas due to better pay in the industrial and service sector. Leading Malaysia to depend mostly on unsustainable cheap migrant labour. The effects of overreliance were seen during the pandemic when migrant labourers who left could not reenter Malaysia, causing a labour shortage. This reduces the yield due to the scale of farming decreasing, thus increasing the price of produce. Moreover, migrant labourers are often abused, due to a lack of awareness of their rights. Abuse could stem from outrageous overtime hours, unpaid wages and a lack of rest days. This is not specifically an agricultural issue but nevertheless an important one. This abuse will cause potential migrant labourers to avoid Malaysia and simply shift to neighbouring countries for employment, inaction will greatly hurt the agriculture sector.

Agriculture Education

Many in the new generation have next to zero interest in the agriculture sector. The government has funded courses such as the Technical and Vocational Education and Training programme to foster greater interest in the sector, but it has shown unpromising results. Moreover, for those that do graduate from agriculture courses, less than a quarter go into the sector. Although the agriculture sector is an honest job, it is branded as dirty, demanding, and physically straining, with wages that are not as fairly compensated as other sectors. Currently, the younger generation that shows interest in agriculture can only be exposed to it at the university. Showing a lack of exposure during the early stages of education. The subjects of the sciences in the stages before tertiary education lack topics related to agriculture. Such as environmental concerns and the usage of resources, which can help inspire greater interest in the field.


The development of a nation cannot transpire without agriculture. After all, a nation cannot perform on an empty stomach. Policymakers should also change their focus from prioritising cash crops that provide greater returns from exports. If cash crops are overprioritized, it also signifies that the economy is not as diversified. Moreover, more has to be done to protect migrant labourers or at least encourage more of the new generation to join the agriculture sector. Agriculture is inevitable; it is what brought us together from small villages to civilizations. Unsustainable agriculture should not be the reason or part of the reason why we perish.

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