Ten Times MARDI is Trying to Shape the Food Industry

Agriculture is not static. It is a process that unfolds over time and interlaces with both the ecosystem it is based and the society it is located. Social, cultural, political, and economic forces can have enduring effects. To be truly sustainable and adaptable to changes, the field must be capable of continually evolving while preserving the human and natural resources that it draws from. In Malaysia, the entire food chain from producers down to consumers has come together to chart the future of agriculture here. These are the emerging developments to keep an eye on.



While the world is slowly waking up to the potential of seaweed, Malaysia has long staked its place at the front of the line. Along with Indonesia and Philippines, they make up 98% of global supply. Production largely concentrates off the coast of Sabah, which in 2016 raked in 206,000 wet tonnes of the slippery sea vegetable valued at RM 44 million. Much of it is destined for the Chinese market, a leading importer at 50.8 percent of all yield. Seaweed comes jam-packed with minerals, protein, fibre, Vitamin K, and folic acid while being low in calories and fat. Risk-averse agropreneurs are particularly drawn to the trade for its low barriers of entry in terms of cost and expertise. The local industry is only expected to grow further with the recent demarcation of 40,000 hectares of ocean area for cultivation, aimed at generating 700,000 wet tonnes valued at RM 215 million.



A rising population and subsequent rising food consumption calls for lengthier shelf life. This is especially pertinent in the baking sector due to the prevalence of fresh ingredients that spoil quickly. Chief among these is coconut milk, which has found a reliable partner in UHT. More effective than either spray drying, canning, or freezing, the method involves heating the up to 150°C followed by cooling at room temperature. As a result, dangerous bacteria can be eliminated with no effect on aroma, colour, and nutritional value. Through this, the low fat desiccated coconut favoured by confectioners can continue to add flavour and density to chocolate products, pastry flour, and breakfast cereal mix.



Soft shelled crab is no longer an exotic delicacy in menus worldwide. Malaysians are spoiled in this regard, with the crustacean available throughout the year. This is thanks to the emergence of giant mud crabs as an alternative to the more conservative choice of blue crabs. The latter, found only in the Atlantic Ocean, is a seasonal dish for the rest of the world due to a moulting cycle that heavily depends on sea temperature and only occurs from May to July. In comparison, giant mud crabs shed their hard exterior husks at more regular intervals and can be harvested earlier due to their fast growth. Signs are promising for players, with Africa and Australia also joining the fray of producing regions.



Red ginger is due for a comeback. Mostly used in traditional medicine, the stem vegetable sports a host of health perks that could see it easily transition to the culinary world. Combined with other ingredients, it can purportedly relieve everything from stomach discomfort and rheumatic disorders to postpartum pains and even the risk of cancer! Red ginger has already found use in the beauty industry, either as slimming pills or in skin care lotions. Mostly grown for personal use by the older generation, its rarity represents a window of opportunity for would-be farmers.



Cash is king, and in an industry where the size of the margin could mean a world of difference in profits, the low-cost option ultimately wins. Village chickens, the poster child of rural life, have been replaced almost entirely by their hybrid and broiler brethren at farms across the country due to comparatively longer maturity periods and lower egg  production. Nonetheless, demand remains high, particularly among restaurants offering authentic Malay fare. And with demand, comes bigger paydays as village chickens fetch more than double the wholesale price of hybrid and broiler chickens. This is not lost on the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI), which has created its own strains of chickens similar in almost every respect to the originals, with firmer flesh and better egg output.



The rarer, the better. That seems to be the adage of the wild mushroom sector, with more elusive varieties commanding steeper prices. Termite mushrooms and splitgill mushrooms – two fungi that can sometimes be found sold in wet markets by fortunate foragers – weigh in at RM 20 per kg and RM 200 per kg respectively. Both are not meant for mass commercialisation with termite mushrooms only appearing on mounds during the rainy season while splitgill mushrooms grow on decaying trees but are susceptible to humidity and rot quickly. A breakthrough has been made on the cultivation of tiger milk mushrooms however, and today it can be lab-grown at a value of RM 50 each (or RM 300 to RM 700 per kilo!). All are coveted for their rich medicinal profile.



With the government’s desire for livestock to become a key economic driver, MARDI needs all the help it can get to make that dream a reality. This time around, help came from abroad in the form of Savannah goats. It is easy to see why they are a major meat-producing breed in their native South Africa. Bucks reach retail weight as early as ten months while does bust out between two and four kids each. Used to harsh environments, they require little to no maintenance and can be bred with other dairy strains to create fleshier, hardier offspring.



A Hari Raya staple, lemang evokes fond memories for many Malaysians of hunching over an open fire, salivating at the glutinous rice cooking within bamboo sticks. While fine for families and roadside vendors, this technique would not do in a larger-scale commercial setting where speed and consistency are keys to success. More sophisticated equipment has now come into play, with special lemang ovens and stainless steel moulds allowing for greater control over the end-result.



Keropok lekor is another traditional treat dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The old way calls for minced fish meat and tapioca flour to be mixed and formed into a dough. It is then processed into a cylindrical shape and boiled before getting a dip in the fryer. Delicious when fresh, which is unfortunately not the case for stock bound for supermarkets and stores. With the proper production line installed, preparation time can be cut to a minimum, quality consistency can be achieved, and sales potential can be improved.



Seen as an invasive species or timber alternative by most of the Western world, bamboo – or more specifically, bamboo shoots – are part of the diets of many Asian communities. Malaysia is not left out either, with the vegetable commonly eaten fried, in gravy, or in curry. While giant bamboo, common bamboo, spiny bamboo, and dense bamboo have cornered local tastebuds, another is ready to make a big splash. Gigantochloa atroviolacea, also known as Java black bamboo or tropical black bamboo, is seen as a hot prospect for its ease of cultivation, shorter maturity period, and greater culinary flexibility. Tasty and healthy in equal measure, it boasts high levels of protein, calcium, and magnesium, as well as phenolic acid, which is believed to decrease the risk of chronic diseases.

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