Malaysia’s Looming Food and Water Catastrophe

By Murray Hunter

Malaysia is heading towards a crisis in food toxicity, with, for instance, occupational poisoning and disease among farmworkers averaging more than 2,500 cases per year, according to research by the Journal of Plant Pathology. What that means is that the food Malaysians eat on a daily basis is under threat from a contaminated water system, poor soils, poor agricultural practices and much more. 

As evidenced by the journal’s study, irrigation water is now a toxic mixture, and further deteriorating to dangerous toxicity levels as pressure is put on the country’s river systems, catchment areas, lakes and dams. They have been under attack not only from pesticide overuse but from urban growth and the consequential contamination from human and industrial activities infringing upon and intruding into these strategic water systems. 

The prime sources of Malaysia’s domestic and agricultural water supplies are derived primarily from rivers and a network of lakes and reservoirs across the country. These rivers, lakes, and reservoirs also serve as navigation ways, and water recreational areas. The lakes and reservoirs are filled by streams, and catchment areas which in many cases being encroached by agricultural activities, illegal logging, industry, and urbanization. 

The primary pollutants include biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) organisms in the form of bacteria and algae, ammoniacal nitrogen (NH3-N) in the form of ammonia derivatives originating from sewage and liquid manure, and suspended solids (SS) also originating from sewage, manures and other wastes. Heavy metals flow into streams and rivers from mining sites. Urban stormwater drains into rivers adding to pollutants. Fertilizer and pesticides runoff into catchment areas adding to water and residual soil contamination. Once this reaches rivers and lakes, eutrophication occurs which promotes a heavy imbalance of algae and water weeds, destroying the natural ecology of the water systems.  

Factories, food stalls, wet markets and auto-repair shops often release waste oils, grease, fats, inorganic materials, and food wastes into river systems. Water treatment facilities cannot handle oil and grease contaminants and must be shut down when these pollutants pass through water treatment facilities, leading to disruptions in domestic water supplies. This is a common occurrence leading to tens of thousands of unscheduled cuts to town water supply across the country annually. In addition to water outages, many town areas suffer from rusty and foul-smelling, colored water caused by old piping systems. Raw water is used in irrigation across the country. Contaminants within irrigation water over the last generation have played a major role in reducing soil quality across the country. 

Although the Energy, Science, Technology, Environment, and Climate Change Ministry (MESTECC) is responsible for water quality, the physical management of Malaysia’s various water resources is within the control of many uncoordinated bodies. Even though fines have been doubled to RM 30,000, most polluters get away scot-free. 

The critical issue is generating enough investment to maintain, modernize and develop the water supply system to cope with future demand, based on the country’s physical water resources. This requires coordination, planning, and ridding those currently in charge of enforcement due to corruption. Malaysia’s foray into the privatization of water utilities has been abysmal, as has been stemming industrial and agricultural activities within vital strategic catchment areas. Water management is too far down the list of issues of national security. This failure to safeguard Malaysia’s water systems is already having drastic effects upon the nation’s food production. 

Years of contaminated irrigation water dispersed over fields have created a soil environment harboring intestinal parasites that can be transmitted to humans via leafy vegetables. The detection of these parasites has led to Singapore’s Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) to occasionally reject Malaysia-produced iceberg lettuce shipments. Singapore has rejected other shipments because residuals above maximum allowable limits of Fipronil, a wide-spectrum pesticide used to repel fleas and ticks.

An informed source within grower circles told Asia Sentinel that rejected shipments to Singapore were just diverted into the Malaysian domestic market for sale.  

In addition, a study has found that leafy vegetables are picking up heavy metals such as cadmium and lead through their root systems and metabolisms, making consumption toxic. 

Some farmers are passing off conventional produce as organic produce, according to a source involved in the industry, who showed Asia Sentinel an analysis of a leading organic brand of tomatoes with residuals of the pesticide Imidacloprid, used to control sucking insects, chewing insects, termites, and soil-based insects.

This contamination is not restricted to vegetables. Paddy soils seep up heavy metals from contaminated irrigation water, thus increasing heavy metal contamination in rice crops. One study found high levels of chromium, copper, lead, arsenic and cadmium in rice. Chromium was found to be the most abundant within cooked rice, posing both a non-carcinogenic and carcinogenic risk with long-term consumption. 

Seafoods are not exempt. Heavy metals flowing through estuaries into the Melaka Strait are contaminating shellfish including arsenic, mercury, cadmium and lead. Pollution levels are so high in some places that an estimated 50,000 bred grouper fish died last year at Teluk Bahang on Penang Island. Freshwater fish are not free either. A study found dangerous levels of heavy metals in the popular Tilapia fish. 

A number of other issues related to the food chain are of concern.

One of the most controversial areas of food production is the use of antibiotics in meat and poultry production. Malaysians eat an average of about 50 kg of chicken, a major staple, annually. The country’s vibrant chicken production industry is dominated by medium to large scale enterprises which use antibiotics to prevent disease within broiler populations and promote quick body growth. They are introduced into the population through feeds and should be withdrawn within a period before slaughter, so that no residuals remain at retail level and consumption points. However, random samples across the country show residues well above allowable legal limits. 

The major concern is that bacteria will become resistant to antibiotics humans require in case of infections. The bacteria Listeria monocytogenes found in frozen burger patties is already resistant to tetracycline and erythromycin, and Campylobacter spp, found in chickens sold in wet markets showed resistance to a wide range of antibiotics such as gentamycin, erythromycin, and tetracycline. There has been a steep rise in deaths from antibiotic-resistant infections over the last decade. 

Although the government wishes to phase out the use of antibiotics in chicken production this year, and alternatives do exist, it’s highly unlikely these practices will cease anytime soon. 

Extremely low levels of hygiene and poor food handling procedures in restaurants and stalls is very common. The presence of E.coli in food, contaminated by fecal material around the Kuala Lumpur area, is around 15 percent of food outlets, according to a Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) official. 

One of the major issues preventing hygiene enforcement is corruption, with restaurant owners paying council and health officials RM1,000 to RM1,500 per month to avoid scrutiny. Second, although food service workers are meant to be immunized for typhoid, many undocumented workers escape this requirement. One  study found that 64 percent of foreign food service workers recorded high levels of staphylococcus aureus, and 24 percent recorded high levels of E.coli on their hands. Food-handling is the major source of contamination along with mishandling. Even with the wide prevalence of food poisoning, some resulting in deaths, few cases are actually reported to authorities. 

Finally diet itself is a major factor, changing from simple fruit, vegetables, fish and starch-based foods to high-fats, salt and sugar-laden diets. Malaysians are now much less active than those a few generations ago, transforming physiques from slender to obese. In August 2018, the World Health Organization rated the country the fattest in Asia, with a steep rise in obesity, gout, heart disease, hypertension and stroke, and diabetes. Heart-related diseases are now the number one killer. Health Minister Dr. Dzulkefly Ahmad recently stated that more than 10 percent of Malaysia’s population is suffering from diabetes

Pollution is not only affecting the quality of the water ecosystem but the start of the agriculture production chain. The consequences of contaminated irrigation water and the poor soils resulting, requires a total rethinking about methods and processes of food production. Production is suffering from low yields as well as contamination from unsustainable farming practices. 

Soil improvement must be a major priority. Pest and insect control require a paradigm change with bio-intensive integrated pest control management systems (bio-IPM). Irrigation water needs to be treated at either a regional or farm level. Farming integrity needs to be supported with protocols like Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP).

Corruption needs to be eradicated at all levels with massive upgrading of enforcement. A major campaign is urgently required to change the current food consumption culture. Malaysia needs protection against an uncurable superbug. Malaysian agriculture needs a total revamp. Finally, Malaysian consumers need to be protected from dangerous and toxic foods.

This article was published in Asia Sentinel.

(The views expressed are those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views of Rebuilding Malaysia.)

Murray Hunter is a retired professor, and professional runner, who spent the last 30 years in South East Asia, as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, author and researcher, whose speciality is in community development and biotechnology.

Rebuilding Malaysia

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