Driving Sustainability

A Special Interview with Datuk Dr. Sharif Haron, the Director General of MARDI on the Future of Agro-ecology.

 

1. What are some of the new and interesting research and development efforts at MARDI?

Our most significant contribution would be the development of 44 varieties of our staple food, rice, which has been successfully planted in about 90% of the granaries in Malaysia. MARDI has also achieved great advances in our research on fruits such as pineapples, papayas, durians as well as chillies and flowers. In animal breed production, we have developed cattle, sheep, goat and ayam kampung breeds suitable for local production. Apart from developing numerous breeds and varieties, we have developed and created modern farming methods and machineries that have increased farmers’ income and quality of life. MARDI is also currently engaged with other agencies to further improve processes and minimise post-harvest losses to so that our food production is more efficient and yield will be increased. We have ventured into new ways to benefit the wellbeing of the nation such as biotechnology, with the development of bio-diagnostic and bio-sensor kits that can detect the levels of chemicals and contaminants present in plants and animals. At MARDI’s Food Science and Technology Research Centre, the team is engaged in developing high quality food products that are functional, healthy and nutritious. We are also working on high value superfood such as kelulut honey putting focus in setting standard production procedures aimed at achieving high export quality.

 

2. Why has MARDI grown more focused on agro-ecology in the past few years?

With the impact of climate change, sustainability is key. It benefits the environment but also guarantees food security. Agro-ecology enables us to create a sustainable food system. It is a delicate science of preserving the natural balance of the ecosystem while employing safe methods or technology to increase sustainability, stability and productivity. Due to the increasing impacts on the environment owed to agricultural practices, the quality of soil has been affected in terms of structure and biological equilibrium. This has required the development of alternative practices to minimise and mitigate those impacts while improving the yield per cultivated area to benefit producers and farmers economically. With the amount of food that society requires today, it has become imperative for new agricultural practices to promote sustainability. These tend to be less invasive to the environment, cheaper than conventional techniques, able to increase efficiency at low costs, able to obtain better characteristics on harvests and ease of use and implementation with no excessive technical requirements. As a result, technologies such as bio-fertilisation have emerged in order to minimise environmental impacts and take advantage of the resources available in the field.

 

3. Has MARDI made any progress in the agro-ecology field during this time?

MARDI has progressed quite a bit in agro-ecology these past few years. We strived to create a stable food production system by developing new varieties that can withstand environmental perturbations such as climate change and disease. Besides that, we have taken an ecological approach in farm management through Integrated Pest Management (IPM), ecofriendly fertilisers, agricultural biodiversity diversification, restoring carbon into the soil and also improving soil quality as alternative ways to achieve ultimate ecosystem functionality for food production. MARDI has invented a few products, which are environmental friendly and are using green technology as well as repurposing waste materials to create bio fertiliser and organic fertilisers. In the 11th Malaysia Plan, MARDI leads projects which are related to agro-ecological approach such as “Sistem Pengeluaran Sayuran Organic Lestari” and “Pengurusan Perosak dan Penyakit, Pembangunan Formula Kawalan Biocontrol, Biopestisid dan Kejuruteraan Bioekologi Sayuran dan Ubian”. In other words, MARDI acknowledges agro-ecology as a way of farming for sustainability.

 

4. How does MARDI’s research on “kelulut” honey fit in the agro-ecology context?

Firstly, bees are an essential part of the ecosystem. They are important for pollination, which ensures the continual survival of diverse plant species. Due to excess use of chemicals, the bee population is rapidly decreasing. This includes the stingless bees (kelulut), which are native to the tropical belt. These bees are unique – small-sized, it produces honey in the form of balls (instead of honey combs) and consumes nectar from a variety of flowers as opposed to normal bees, which are uni-floral (consumes from one type of flower). This contributes to the elevated antioxidant levels (four to ten times more than in normal honey). While there is now a law that prohibits trees that houses stingless bees to be cut down, we can do more to encourage its propagation. This includes ensuring the queen bee is strong so she attracts more worker bees. We have also developed a technique to remove the hive from the tree and researching innovative ways to build hives, which will help increase its population. 5. What is MARDI’s role in developing “kelulut” honey for the market? We are in the midst of developing standard procedures for the production of kelulut honey. This is to ensure the nutritional properties are preserved and not diminished due to erroneous processing methods. MARDI is also trying to standardise the blending process because there are so many variations out there due to production by different operators. We hope to become the anchor for all operators, by buying their honey and blending it to achieve a standard blend. Besides that, we know that stingless bees like to consume nectar from specific herbs. MARDI plans to produce concentrated honey based on the herb nectar, in small quantities for purposes of maintaining wellbeing.

 

5. What is MARDI’s role in developing “kelulut” honey for the market?

We are in the midst of developing standard procedures for the production of kelulut honey. This is to ensure the nutritional properties are preserved and not diminished due to erroneous processing methods. MARDI is also trying to standardise the blending process because there are so many variations out there due to production by different operators. We hope to become the anchor for all operators, by buying their honey and blending it to achieve a standard blend. Besides that, we know that stingless bees like to consume nectar from specific herbs. MARDI plans to produce concentrated honey based on the herb nectar, in small quantities for purposes of maintaining wellbeing.

 

6. Where do you see MARDI’s agricultural research headed in the next 10 to 15 years?

Besides our commitment to food security, which is the national priority, MARDI’s research will be focused on mitigating the impacts of climate change, promoting sustainable agriculture and helping the urban poor. In fact, these are ongoing efforts, for example we have already made advances in developing plant varieties that are adaptable to extreme conditions. MARDI is now developing and promoting green agriculture such as organic farming among the industry players. We are also looking into urban agricultural systems such as vertical farming and fertigation system which, will help reduce kitchen spending and allow for extra harvests that can be sold to provide additional income to the urban population. Other than that, the booming tourism industry has driven MARDI to develop agro-tourism centres under the concept of ‘bringing knowledge to the people’. At the same time, agrotourism can also be associated with the health and wellness products and services such as of plant or fruit-based natural remedies.

 

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