R&D CAN MAKE RUB­BER, CO­CONUT GREAT AGAIN

Malaysia can de­velop value-added prod­ucts of the two cash crops

New Straits Times - - OPINION -

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

PIC BY YAHYA ZAIN­UD­DIN

Zulk­i­fli Ab­dul­lah of Perak is one of the small farm­ers help­ing the coun­try ex­port rub­ber to global mar­kets.

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