YBhg Dato’ Dr Mohd Nazlee Kamal CEO of BiotechCorp
Agriculture in the 21st century faces three major challenges: how to feed a growing population, how to contribute towards the reduction of rural poverty, and how to respond to increased concerns about managing the natural resources base.
I would like to emphasise that the agricultural sector can be attractive and income generating. We need to further enhance the agricultural sector for the sake of food security and easy supply of essential food, in which we are still not self-sufficient. Better yet, we have to make it as attractive as possible if we want to revitalise agriculture and transforming it into a vibrant sector of the bioeconomy.
In Malaysia, production and productivity is largely constrained by natural factors and adoption of technologies. Farmers are faced with new opportunities and challenges every day. According to our national statistics department, the contribution of agriculture to Malaysia’s gross domestic product (GDP) declined from 28.8% in 1970 to 7.3% in 2010. But in other states such as in Perlis and Sabah, agriculture’s share of GDP can still be as high as 25%-30%.
Not too long ago, I read about local shrimp farming business being adversely affected by large-scale losses due to a disease called “Early Mortality Syndrome” (EMS). EMS or Acute Hepatopancreatic Necrosis Syndrome (AHPNS) comes from bacteria and delays shrimp growth that prevents it from reaching maturity, thus the shrimp will be undersized and eventually cannot be harvested. Given this scenario, farms could experience from 70 percent to total death rates of shrimps, while infected ponds are very unlikely to be re-cultivated. According to 2013 data, since EMS was first reported in China in 2009, it has spread to Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand, and now causes annual losses of more than US$ 1 billion.
Another example would be in banana cultivation. Diseases affecting bananas cultivation including the notable Panama and Moko diseases, which poses serious threat to the crop plant. The former has been around in the country for a very long time now while the latter was first discovered attacking the banana crop plant in Johor in 2007 in the aftermath of a severe flood that hit the state in that year. The causal agents of Panama disease, a fungus, i.e. Fusarium oxysporium and Moko disease, a bacteria called Ralstonia solanacearum, thrive in moist soil conditions. These wilting banana diseases spread rapidly and retard crop plant growth resulting in heavy yield and economic losses.
I reckon the answer to addressing these challenges can partly come by working with science, which is through the adoption of bio-based innovations. On-going scientific discoveries have given birth to an emerging field of “agricultural biotechnology,” which is attracting much attention around the world due to the industry’s expanding impact on the productivity of commodities used in food, industrial, and pharmaceutical products. That impact is expected to be even more significant in the future.
Back in Malaysia, the utmost concerns for the local agricultural sector would be to increase productivity, produce increased output, and to attract the younger generation to join the profession, with the ultimate goal of improving the economy.
The strategy would be to draw on the adoption of technologies to produce sustainable yet profitable farming business. Efforts are most needed to move up the value chain by matching the technologies used in farming in the US and Europe. There is now a need to focus on more advanced technologies, for example, plant stem cell and gene editing technology etc. in order for us to maintain our competitive advantage. Already we have industry players in the country carrying out R&D activities in genome sequencing, biomarker discovery and metagenomics studies which are directed towards enhancing agricultural productivity, sustainability and value added.
In 2015, the first genome-edited crop, a herbicide-resistant oilseed rape, was planted in fields dotted across the United States. Although the plant’s DNA has been directly altered by molecular biologists, the company that created it, Cibus, based in San Diego, California, stated that only a few nucleotides of the plant’s existing genes have been changed. No gene has been inserted from a different kind of organism, nor even from another plant.
This gene-editing technique, known as clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats or CRISPR in short, is the latest technique in genome editing and has enormous potential application, including altering the germline of humans, animals and other organisms, as well as manipulating the genes of food crops. The interesting aspect of genome editing is that it allows much smaller changes to be made to DNA compared with current conventional genetic engineering. In terms of agriculture, this might win over public and regulator opinion. The first genome-edited crop to emerge, Cibus’s oilseed rape has a business rationale. Instead of focusing on an edit that could, for example, boost the vitamin content of the plant’s oil to combat malnutrition, the right edits now allow a farmer to spray weed killer more economically over his or her fields.
The technological benefits and impact of agricultural bio-based technologies on farmers’ well-being is well documented both in developed and developing countries. Biotech crops enable farmers to benefit economically, and at the same time, allow farmers to grow crops in a more sustainable manner. With rising food prices and expanding population, increased crop yields provided through agricultural biotechnology provide important economic, social and environmental benefits. A study released in 2005 by the U.S. National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy found that biotech plants helped farmers reduce their annual production costs by US$ 1.4 billion, contributing to an increase in net profits of US$ 2 billion. Biotech crop varieties that are designed to thrive even under harsh conditions, such as severe heat or cold, flood or drought, and soils with high levels of salt or metals enable farmers to experience a decreased rate of crop losses during situations which traditionally have taken huge financial tolls on farmers.
The World Bank estimates that over one-half of the labour force in developing nations is employed in the agricultural sector, which means higher crop yields can boost incomes for poor farmers and feed more people in these countries. Increased agricultural productivity and higher quality crop translates into higher incomes and helps to stimulate local economies.
This brings to the question of how effective are we in advancing our local industry. Technological adoption is currently further complicated by the lack of concerted efforts by stakeholders, be it by researchers, industry leaders and the government.
We need to think out of the box if we aspire to become a leader in bio-based technologies, and to stay as an agricultural powerhouse. Lasting solutions, such as the utilisation of bio-based technologies, for example, genomics technology is needed to sustain agriculture as one of the core pillars of the economy. To date, the production rate in Malaysia is still considerably one of the largest amongst the Asia Region due to excellent natural conditions – level of humidity, tropical weather and rich soil. Bio-based technologies is slowly but steadily making entry and inroad into Malaysian farms.
There are limitations if we leave it to the industry to innovate by itself. Small and medium sized players for example need more support to turn out the new products and processes that will help stimulate the economy. The government is playing a proactive role in helping the industry to rectify the problem faced by maintaining its focus on areas which drive growth, including measures which support high value investment and innovation.
We are now working towards the creation of a network of innovation centres which will bring industry and universities together as a seed-bed for new ideas and business opportunities. I hope that support for these existing centres will be enhanced to make sure they stay at the cutting edge of technology and to keep Malaysia at the forefront of agricultural excellence. Creating a conducive bio-based start-up ecosystem could also serve as a way to work through the challenges. People will not be overly dependent for jobs, but instead creating own jobs through agro-businesses.
The development of the agriculture and agro-based industry together with the elevation of biotechnology and bio-based technologies represent an important component in the national economic agenda, to generate new source of income, and to take business and commerce beyond its current local front. In line with the national agenda to establish food security for Malaysia and to reduce over-dependency on food import worth RM 28.0 billion in 2008 to about RM 14.0 billion annually, BiotechCorp initiatives are tailored towards achieving the goal of producing food surplus by 2030.
Agri-tech and bio-based sector will continue to be an important source of income and employment for the people in rural areas and for the growth of the economy. Given the right ecosystem, and with the support of small-scale and big-scale farmers, SMEs, and large corporations, and the commitment given by the government, it is possible to transform the agricultural sector into a big success story through large-scale and high-impact bio-based projects.