R&D CAN MAKE RUBBER, COCONUT GREAT AGAIN
Malaysia can develop value-added products of the two cash crops
PRIME Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad made two penetrating comments on research and development (R&D) when he officiated at the recent International Rubber Conference in Kuala Lumpur.
First, he encouraged the rubber industry to carry on with research in product development to raise global use of this commodity, supplied by many small farmers in Malaysia.
“Rubber was introduced from Brazil, while oil palm was brought in from West Africa, but it is amazing how these crops are now used to bring great economic returns to (Malaysia),” he said.
Both crops have benefited here from solid R&D, coupled with strong government-industry links.
Over the decades, Malaysians have developed techniques, and created superior planting materials to achieve better yields than other countries.
Dr Mahathir said R&D had created innovations such as rubber gloves and furniture from latex and rubberwood to ensure the rubber industry continued to prosper, even as Malaysia ceded the title of top rubber-producing country.
Prof Datuk Ahmad Ibrahim of UCSI University declared that “R&D could make rubber great again”, adding that R&D was key to Malaysia’s drive to develop the rubber industry in years past.
Without R&D to improve breeding, disease management, harvesting, product development, processing and downstream manufacturing, “the industry would not have moved beyond what it started with when the first rubber tree was planted in Kuala Kangsar (in 1877)”.
Assessing the challenges ahead, Ahmad noted the need to take into account digital and bioscientific trends.
“At all times, we must have research devoted to the long-term end game of technology creation. It may be time for a transformation of the country’s rubber research agenda. It should now move beyond natural rubber … including research on synthetic rubbers.”
It seems ironic that 70 per cent of the world’s supply of natural rubber originates from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, while the top global tyre manufacturers are headquartered in industrialised countries: Bridgestone (Japan), Michelin (France), Goodyear (United States), Continental (Germany), and Pirelli (Italy).
Maybe it’s time for producer countries like Malaysia to pay more attention to downstream production and create more added-value here at home.
Dr Mahathir’s second observation related to researching other plants either found locally or with potential to be grown in Malaysia.
One sure candidate could be coconut, a tree species indigenous to the Malay Archipelago.
Malaysia remains one of the world’s top 10 coconut-producing countries, and coconut is the country’s fourth most important crop after oil palm, rubber and rice.
There’s an urgent need to revive the coconut industry. For decades, the industry has been in the doldrums, leading to lower demand for coconut oil.
Today, with the benefit of 1,500 scientiEfic studies, virgin coconut oil (VCO) has been accepted as a “super natural functional food”.
VCO contains 92 per cent saturated fat, but 64 per cent of this fat is comprised of medium chain fatty acids beneficial to human health, which is easily broken and used as energy without clogging arteries or other parts of the body.
On the other hand, almost all vegetable oils such as soybean, corn and sunflower seed do not contain this quality.
In addition, scientific studies have proven VCO to eliminate disease-causing bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa.
Coconut-related R&D has been conducted at the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi) for more than three decades. And yet, despite these efforts, the coconut industry lags in competitiveness.
For the last 10 years, Mardi has put extra emphasis on research into new technologies to add value to coconut-based products.
It recently commercialised three coconut-based products: VCO, activated virgin coconut oil and coconut water vinegar.
Mardi has established a few proofs of concepts in coconutbased products to help the industry.
Because local markets are small, expansion into export markets for these products is vital.
Besides planting technologies and new markets, priority should also be given to technology transfer and product quality.
Malaysia should grab this opportunity to develop high-quality VCO-based products.
We have the capabilities and the technologies to do it.
There is a large potential market for VCO-based products — as food, cosmeceuticals, nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals.
And it is important for Malaysia to take advantage of these highvalue products.
Along this line, there is a great potential for the Malaysian Bioeconomy Development Corporation, the economic development agency dedicated to driving the growth of the bio-based industry, to take a leading role in reviving the coconut industry.
For a start, it may wish to work with Mardi and other government agencies, in addition to encouraging the private sector to take a second look at this native crop.
In the end, R&D holds the key to reinvigorating industrial crops, which remain an important source of income for our people.
In the end,
R&D holds the key to reinvigorating our industrial crops, which remain an important source of income for our people.
The writer, a senior fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia, is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board to the president of the Islamic Development Bank
Zulkifli Abdullah of Perak is one of the small farmers helping the country export rubber to global markets.