With available land for agriculture dwindling, the onus is on the relevant bodies to develop better food crops and improve value chain processes to produce higher yields – and feed more with less. Here, that challenge is taken on by the Malaysian Agriculture Research and Development Institute (MARDI), spearheaded by its Director General Datuk Dr. Mohamad Roff Mohd Noor.
One of the institute’s key research areas currently is the generation of new crop varieties or breeds with desirable characteristics that can help overcome issues faced by the agriculture industry. Besides higher yields, Dr. Mohamad Roff said its equally vital for crops to have greater adaptability to varying weather conditions, higher tolerance to pests and diseases, as well as better nutritional value for the end consumer.
CITING THE EXAMPLE OF RICE
The second most important crop in the world after wheat – he points to the MR303 and MR307 varieties which MARDI recently launched. Both types tick all the boxes for good varieties, with the bonus of having great commercial value due to their excellent quality and taste.
Meanwhile, the specialty MR98 coloured rice variety caters to the niche market for healthy eating, being high in anthocyanin, phenolic acid and antioxidants.
Such subtle ‘improvements’, whilst giving consumers a better product, help fulfil the national demand for the starchy staple. It means more rice can be produced, using the same amount of land.
Safe to say there is no single more important food product for Malaysians than rice – who research has shown, consume an average of two and a half plates per day.
Be it in economy rice and Nasi Kandar, or in derivative items like kuih and some indigenous desserts, the little grains are hugely important and essentially, what fuels the local population.
MARDI has introduced a new lowland tomato variety able to grow in higher temperature enabling more production nation-wide. This variety has higher yield, attractive red skin colour, and increased tolerance to bacterial wilt. A new chili variety with equal bounty as well as anthracnose tolerant is also being developed.
Unbeknownst to many, coconuts are among the most beneficial crops around. The extracted oil and milk are used not only in cooking but is now realized as highly nutritious and are consumed as health supplements. Besides the fruit, other parts of the plant have many usages as well. Hence, there is definitely a good prospect for the coconut industry in Malaysia and in the region.
Six new varieties are being developed in recent years – namely the MARLECA, CARENA, CARECA, MYLAG, MYLECA and CARENI to cater the demand of the nation and MARDI has placed much emphasis on seed production to sustain the coconut industry in Malaysia, starting with the planting of 2 acres in 2016. This rose to 30 acres in 2017, and stands at 20 acres for the first half of 2018.
ON OVERALL SUSTAINABILITY AND MANAGING LOSES
Dr. Mohamad Roff also sees the need for a ‘Total System Approach’ in the whole agriculture value chain, to make it more sustainable and to tackle emerging issues within the industry.
The experienced director general sees an increase in public interest in modern times towards sustainable farming – which is defined as ‘the management and conservation of the natural resource base, and the orientation of technological and institutional change in such a manner as to ensure the attained and continued satisfaction of human needs for present and future generations’.
Such development conserves land, water, plant and animal genetic resources, is environmentally non-degrading, technically appropriate, economically viable and socially acceptable.
There are various aspects of sustainability being developed in MARDI which include development of good farm practices, reducing postharvest losses, promoting precision farming and utilizing agro-biodiversity. “In Malaysia, we have certification for best practices in agri-culture such as MyGAP and MyOrganic, but the rate of farms getting the accreditation is quite slow.”
Sustainable farming projects currently run by MARDI include the Integrated Farming System (IFS), Integrated Pest Management (IPM), organic farming, ecological engineering (farmscaping) for rice, fruits and vegetables, precision farming, ecosystem services (biological agents, pollinators, decomposers, etc), and the introduction of biopesticides and biofertilizers.
“We are aggressively tackling the infestation of pests and diseases, such as the dieback problem which devastated our papaya industry and reduced its export revenue by 70%. We managed to develop a novel Biofertiliser with Induced Systemic Resistance (ISR) to control the disease.”
ON APPLYING TECHNOLOGY & SCIENCE
For that, Dr. Mohamad Roff says there must also be a building of healthy and sustainable systems in agriculture – such as green technologies, and a culture of conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.
At plant level, the institute is continuously exploring the potentiality of new species of food crops, with Kuini, Terengganu Cherry and Garcinia among the rare fruits identified that can be exploited. It also recently launched the Anggun purple sweet potato, that is high in anthocyanins.
At the microbial level, the use of beneficial microbes in tackling issues related to plant immunity, defence and grown is being explored.
“For example, we have come up with Biochar based solid organic fertilizer enriched with effective microbes, as well as essential macro and micro nutrients for optimum and sustainable crop yield production. This has been commercialized.”
“In the pipelines are also innovations where fertilizers are used as bio-stimulants, consisting of seaweed extract together with photosynthetic bacteria.”
Malaysia is rapidly becoming an urbanized country, where 70% of the country is expected to experience urbanization by 2020. “To improve the efficiency of nations food systems, at the system level, we’re looking at urban agriculture. We’re in the midst of building a pilot-scale plant factory to house highly valued vegetables and herbs.”
The main aim is to obtain precision environmental and growth parameters for optimal production, which can then be translated to conditions needed for urban agriculture.
“This is to encourage green, sustainable living in urban areas. We’ve also come up with the self-watering container that allows anyone to plant vegetables and fruits such as melons, cucumbers and bitter gourds easily,” he elaborated.
ON THE FUTURE OF AGRICULTURE
“The nation has targeted 2020 for areas under agriculture, aquaculture and forestry to be managed sustainably, ensuring conservation of biodiversity according to the National Biodiversity Policy for 2016 to 2025.”
“By 2025, we hope 50% of all agricultural areas are sustainably managed and certified under schemes like MSPO, RSPO and MyGAP. Younger generations of farmers are receptive towards such sustainable practices compared to older generations. They are open to new ideas and advancements in agricultural technologies that are sustainable.”
“However, this may need intervention by the government in the form of policies and incentives that facilitate the adoption of these practices. Research and development in this area should be prioritised to ensure it is kept up to date with the latest technology to increase productivity and competitiveness,” Dr. Mohamad Roff added.
ON EXECUTION AND IMPLEMENTATION
We are also concentrating our efforts to come up with high value food products, or nutritionally rich, functional food and ingredients. Malaysia is actually a goldmine for this, as it is endowed with a rich potpourri of flora and fauna.
“MARDI’s research has focused on increasing product innovation from local resources for the development of nutritional convenience foods, functional ingredients and a whole range of new nutritionally enriched products. “Some examples include high-fiber cereals, healthy seaweed, enriched vegetable protein, as well as functional beverages and probiotics,” he added.
Knowledge and technologies are not of much use if it does not reach our stakeholders. MARDI has been actively supporting small-medium enterprises (SMEs) through several initiaves, among them the Entrepreneurship/Agropreneurship Programme which provides technical support, knowhow and capacity building alongside assistance to get Ministry Matching Grants to develop the SME into agro-industries with annual sales exceeding RM 1 mil.
Around 438 SMEs have also been placed under its Technical Advisory scheme, which provides assistance on production and processing technologies, machinery requirements, packaging, labelling, branding, as well as HALAL, GMP and HACCP documentation for certification.
A six-month Incubator/Test Bed Programme offers participants help on technical aspects and physical infrastructure. Sites are located in MARDI Besut, Terengganu (potato-based bakery products), MARDI Alor Setar, Kedah (rice-based products), MARDI Kuala Linggi (extraction of herb-based essential oils and by-products) and MARDI Kota Kinabalu, Sabah (production of fish-based products).
Besides these, the institute through its MARDILab also shares expertise to support such industries, such as consultancy and related technical services in food and agriculture testing for local and global markets, attachment training in food chemical and microbiological analysis, as well as agriculture chemical analysis technology covering nutritional labelling, shelf-life and quality of products. The laboratories are accredited to MS ISO/IEC 17025.
“The agriculture industry today is rapidly transforming into a commercialized entity, due to the growth of world economy, market liberalization and urbanization which all increase demand for food. As these grow, there is a gradual movement out of subsistence food-crop production to a more diversified, market-oriented or commercialized production system. From a research institution’s point of view, this process requires a paradigm shift in agricultural research priorities, and the methodology of transferring new technology to the targeted group,” Dr. Mohammad Roff observed.
He said the most critical aspect about commercialising new technology is getting or ensuring that it produces the expect output reliably, in a business environment. To assure this, all new technology must be evaluated, up-scaled, fully-tested and packaged before it is offered for sale. Currently, MARDI’s Technology Commercialization Programme has been able to market 110 new innovations with an estimated technology value exceeding RM 51.9 mil, generating companies some RM 358.87 mil in business revenue. The institute has developed and established two categories of brands – namely MARDI’s and NUTRIMA by MARDI’s – the former being non-food items such as mechanization and IT, while the latter compises premium food and drinks.
All these efforts underscore MARDI’s main mission in ensuring that the basic food needs of the Malaysian people, as well as the welfare of agriculture industry players, are taken care of.