All Perakians should learn the art of growing food, even if they are urbanites living in housing estates or condominiums. No, it’s not because the Ukraine War will make farm produce scarce; it’s climate change.
We have yet to feel it badly in Malaysia, but across continental Europe, Asia, and North America, farmlands are drying up as global temperatures keep steadily rising year on year. Respite from the soaring heat comes in the form of ruinous floods that drown crops as well as shrink the areas of cultivable land.
We have been getting a small taste of what’s coming ahead. Floods easily destroy bananas, watermelons, and chillies because these trees cannot be submerged in water. If you’re a chilli lover, you would have felt redhot when a kilo of Red Chili Kulai shot up from RM10 in 2019 to RM23 at the end of 2020. Fortunately the priced fell back to RM11 this year. But it isn’t the price fluctuations that are most worrying.
The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that extreme weather events will reduce the reliability of food production around the world. It certainly is the case in Malaysia where almost daily rain and record-breaking flood intensity have caused farm yields to drop by 20%-30%. This, coupled with increases in production costs, is driving many farmers to leave the industry.
The IPCC further identified Southeast Asia as among the world’s most at-risk regions for extreme climate events as we face rising sea levels, heat waves, droughts, and increasingly intense rainstorms. In 2019, one-sixth of Indonesia’s rice crops were damaged by a two-month-long drought. So, in addition to umbrellas you will need to carry battery-operated fans in case the heat turns up suddenly after a short spell of rain.
Soil is also being degraded through loss of nutrients and organic matter. The use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilisers has devastated the microbe population in soil, and as microbial activity is essential for nutrient cycling, the absence of microbes increasingly renders the soil inhospitable to crops of all kinds. Crops that are able to grow end up being nutrient deficient.
Microbial life also acts as a carbon sink, converting CO2 in the air into the physical mass of bacteria and insects. But soil depleted of such lifeforms can no longer act as a carbon sink, and cannot assist in mitigating climate change.
Climate change deniers have lately spread misinformation that, since plants breathe in CO2 as opposed to humans who breathe in oxygen, the more CO2 there is in the air the better for plant growth. This is simplistic. Plants store carbon predominantly in the form of carbohydrates and studies have shown that cereal crops especially rice and wheat respond to higher concentrations of CO2 in the air by synthesising more carbohydrates.
Correspondingly, the levels of protein and other nutrients such as minerals and B vitamins are greatly reduced. So the rice, bread, and capati now have lower nutritional value and instead carry a higher diabetic risk. Furthermore, rising atmospheric temperatures are stressing the cereal crops with the result that these crops are turning into high-nitrate plants that may cause nitrate poisoning in animals and humans.
Researchers have also discovered a range of poisonous micotoxins in stressed crops that when consumed by animals and humans can induce cancer. So don’t be fooled by the climate change deniers who say that more CO2 is good for you. It’s going to kill you through the food you eat, if it doesn’t kill you through floods and heatwaves. Hence, food security is a pressing issue, both in terms of supply shortage and nutritional deficiency.
What you should do is get your hands into farming so that you know what the issues are. If you have landed property, turn a part of your compound into a fruit-and-veggie patch. If your built-up occupies almost the entire space, start a community farm utilising idle land in the neighbourhood. Visit the community garden at Desa Tambun Indah in Ipoh and stroll through rows of curry leaf, pumpkin, spinach, papaya, and other edibles for ideas.
If there is no idle plot in your neighbourhood or if you live in a condominium, you can try applying for permission to use state land. To encourage urban farming, Perak Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Saarani Mohamad told the Legislative Assembly in July that short-term leases can be granted. He did not disclose the lease price.
In Britain, allotment gardening has taken off like a rocket blasting into space as Britons shift towards a more sustainable lifestyle. British law specifies that for every 1,000 persons, at least 4 acres must be allotted for cultivation of fruits and vegetables. Rents for allotment gardens are very low, ranging from £1 a year to £50 a year per plot, as the idea is not to make money but to encourage healthy living and promote food security.
If you have a friend in Britain, the chances are fairly high that he is an allotment holder or is waiting in line for his allotment. In Malaysia there is no Allotments Act, and hence you may want to try indoor farming utilising balcony or washyard space — even your living room. Indoor farming uses hydroponic technology and nutrient solutions. Go organic and make sure the feeds are derived from animal waste and seaweeds.
Your purpose in growing some of your own fruits and vegetables should not be just to save money but also to put a brake on climate change. In fact, you accomplish a 3-in-1 through rainwater harvesting for your plants. First, you save on tap water usage for the good of the community; second, you keep your water bill from rising; third, your plants grow better on rainwater as there are no chemicals such as chlorine and fluoride.
To remove insect infestations from your plants, spray them with neem oil, chrysanthemum flower tea, eucalyptus oil, citrus oil, and other natural pesticides depending on the type of infestation. Never use chemical pesticides, as they are bad for your health and the environment. You must also not adopt a “winner take all” commercial farming practice but leave some for the insects, as the way of nature is to share.
If you’re still hesitant to pick up a spade, remember that one year ago the United Nations issued a “code red for humanity” warning that there is “nowhere to run, nowhere to hide” from the devastating effects of climate change.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ipoh Echo
by Joachim Ng