Brunei and countries with similar geography can easily be self-sufficient in food. That is what prominent economic expert Ricardo Hausmann, director of International Development Center for International Development at Harvard University says. He avers that only tropical, landlocked nations may never enjoy access to the markets and new technologies they need to flourish in the global economy in his book Prisoners of Geography.
Brunei is not landlocked, it has excellent access to sea and land travel — but why is most of its food being imported?
Brunei imports some 80 per cent of its food needs and the government is attempting to increase agricultural production.
While Brunei is nearly self-sufficient in vegetables, it still imports 100 vegetables such as baby kailan/tunas, tomato, young corn, tomato, chilli, rebong, daun selasih, pucuk batat, peria, kuchai, kailan, sawi bunga and timun manis from Sabah and Sarawak, the Agricultural Ministry said.
Brunei produces only over one per cent of rice locally and imports 60 to 70 per cent of tropical fruits as well as cattle and poultry.
Last year alone, 3,185 metric tonnes of agricultural commodities worth US$2.2 million ($3.2 million) were imported.
According to statistics from the Agricultural Department, the total consumption of vegetables last year was 16,098 metric tonnes with an estimated retail value of US$36.7 million. Of the total, 9,518.1 metric tonnes with an estimated retail value of US$21.6 million, was locally produced.
How then does Brunei's geography help the country leap-frog to food self-sufficency?
Hausmann implies that with Brunei's location, it can easily access research, information and technology for the development of its agriculture by spending more of its oil and gas earnings on agricultural research and development.
He said the divergence in agricultural productivity between the developed and developing world is grounded in dramatically different research and development capabilities.
Governments in advanced economies spend up to five times more on agriculture-related research and development than their counterparts in developing countries.
Rich nations also benefit from the expenditures of private agricultural producers — a source of funding that is virtually nonexistent in developing nations. Geography aggravates this disparity. The agricultural sector of tropical countries should then be more dynamic than in temperate zones.
Since unproductive agricultural workers can produce little more than what they require for personal subsistence (and therefore cannot support large urban populations), rural areas remain sparsely populated, have small, poor markets, and suffer from high transportation costs — all of which hamper economic growth, he added..
Brunei, then, has to spend more on agricultural research, farmer training and extension and make farming not only a way of living but more so of an enterprise to attract more Bruneians to engage in agricultural activities.
The agricultural ministry intends to generate strategic and innovative technologies in relevant areas of agrotechnology to promote sustainable development of the agriculture and agri-food industries. But to concretise this, there is an urgent need that a strong research focus be initiated and sustained backed by a vibrant group of agriculturists.
While land, finance, and irrigation facilities are available, agricultural activities lack manpower resources. The gap between wages in farming and the public sector is large, and most Bruneians have little interest in agricultural production.
In 1996, out of an economically active population of 127,000, only 2,000 — less than 2 per cent — were engaged in the agriculture.
The picture should change.
At present, just less than fifteen per cent of the land is cultivated, resulting in low agricultural output and continued dependence on the importation of food from abroad.
For example, the government maintains a cattle ranch in Australia to ensure a steady supply of beef. This ranch, located at Willeroo in the Northern Territory, is actually larger than the entire country of Brunei.
Thailand continues to be a source for a large percentage of Brunei's staple food, rice.
According to Brunei's agricultural ministry, the government has numerous incentives to encourage people to work in the agricultural sector, including free pesticides, low-cost fertilisers, training programs, model farms, and other support from the Agriculture Department. Despite this governmental assistance, during the 1990's less than five per cent of the workforce was employed in agriculture (many of whom were only involved in subsistence farming).
The government has also tried to encourage the production of mushrooms and specialty fruit for the export market, but to date there has been only modest progress in these areas.
It is also upporting the development of local agriculture and agri-food industries by providing advisory, consultancy, technical services and technology transfer in relevant areas of agrotechnology to the industries.
Yet, there is a need to strengthen the link between technology generated, verified and applicable technologies with those of technology end-users.
A leading agriculturist from the University of the Philippine College of Agriculture at Los Banos where some of Asia's best agriculturists have studied, Dr Lucy Villanuena, said Brunei should grow globally competitive and high value crops to attract its young population to engage in agricultural enterprise.
Dr Lucio Victor, a former agriculture university president and who helped Malaysia in the early 80s in the country's agricultural boom as a consultant, said there was a need to develop outstanding crop of agricultural scientists to propel agriculture to competitive level.
There should also be an upswing in promoting agriculture as a college course for the young Bruneian population besides urging them to be more responsive to economically productive endeavours.
The writer is a Filipino writer on environment and community development issues.
The Brunei Times