Cost of living: Rise in food export curbs sparks concerns

By Annabelle Liang
Business reporter

  • Published
Slaughtered chicken at a wet market in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.Image source, Getty Images

Malaysia says it will cut the export of chickens from the start of June because of shortages in the country.

Elsewhere in Asia, India has banned wheat exports, while Indonesia blocked overseas sales of palm oil.

It comes as the world faces the worst food crisis in decades following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

One agriculture expert has highlighted concerns about the potential rise of so-called "food nationalism" by governments in the region.

Malaysian shoppers have seen chicken prices surge in recent months, while some retailers have put limits on how much of the meat customers can buy.

On Monday, Malaysia's Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said the South East Asian country will stop exporting as many as 3.6m chickens every month "until domestic prices and production stabilise".

"The government's priority is our own people," he said in a statement.

Neighbouring Singapore, where Malaysian imports account for around a third of its chicken supplies, looks set to be hit especially hard by the move.

Almost all the birds are imported live before they are slaughtered and chilled in Singapore.

Later on Monday, the Singapore Food Agency encouraged shoppers to buy frozen chicken and moved to discourage panic-buying.

"While there may be temporary disruptions to the supply of chilled chicken, frozen chicken options remain available to mitigate the shortfall," the agency said in a statement. "We also advise consumers to buy only what they need."

Impact of war

Malaysia's chicken export ban is the latest development in the global food crisis.

Last month, the World Bank warned that record rises in food prices could push hundreds of millions of people into poverty and low nutrition.

Ukraine is a major exporter of wheat and its output has plunged since Russia invaded the country.

This has caused a surge in global wheat prices. It has also raised the prospect of shortages in the countries which depend on its exports.

On Monday, Yuliia Svyrydenko, the first deputy prime minister of Ukraine, told the BBC that the international community should create a "safe passage" to enable millions of tons of grain stuck in Ukraine to leave the country.

Also speaking to the BBC's economics editor Faisal Islam on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, David Beasley, executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme, called Russia's blockage of Ukraine's food exports "a declaration of war on global food security".

"We are already facing the worst food crisis since World War II," he said.

"When you take 400 million people that are fed by the food that comes out from Ukraine and you shut that off, and then you add on top of that fertiliser problems, droughts, food costs, fuel costs, we're looking at a hellstorm on earth," Mr Beasley added.

'Food nationalism' at work?

Wheat prices climbed again earlier this month after India banned exports of the staple cereal. The decision by the Indian government came after a heatwave in the country drove domestic prices to a record high.

With droughts and floods threatening crops in other major producers, commodity traders had been expecting supplies from India to make up for part of the shortfall from Ukraine.

Palm oil prices also surged in recent weeks when Indonesia, the top producer of the ingredient used in everything from processed food to soap, stopped exports for three weeks to bring down local prices of cooking oil. The ban was lifted on Monday.

These are examples of "food nationalism", according to Sonia Akter, an assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

"Governments impose such restrictions because they feel that they have to protect their citizens first and foremost," she said.

"From the previous experience of the 2007-2008 food crisis, it is expected that more and more countries will follow suit, which will exacerbate the crisis as well as the food price inflation," she added.

However, Professor William Chen of Singapore's Nanyang Technological University believes the export restrictions are just temporary in nature rather than fully-fledged food nationalism.

"Other countries have imposed bans on food commodities but lifted the ban later on," said Mr Chen, who is a director of the university's food science and technology programme.

"This is a good reflection of the interconnectivity of the food value chain, [where] no country can really depend on itself for all foods needed for their population."

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