Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Science Journalism in Malaysia

It is undeniable that science and technology play a vital role in nation building, elevating the status of a country from developing to developed nation, improving the quality of life and environment, alleviating poverty, and increasing self-sufficiency of a nation among others. These are just some simple examples of the impact of science and technology. None of us can deny that science and technology infringes on all aspects of our lives. Malaysia has big dreams: achieving developed status, producing a Nobel Laureate, and emerging as a biotech hub. Much effort has been focussed towards realising these dreams and aspirations. However, besides focusing on the main areas such as funds, R&D, infrastructure, and investment, other instrumental peripheral areas need intense attention as well.

One of it is – science journalism. This is a branch of journalism that specialises in communicating science news to the public. This is an important area that needs to be nurtured to increase science literacy among our populace. It is pertinent that science news reaches the masses so that the society is well informed of current innovation and the need for it. It helps them to understand the technology and get them involved in decision making based on facts. Science literacy among school children too is crucial as this will inculcate interest in them to pursue careers in science. We are all well aware of the fact that Malaysia is still lacking of skilled workers and researchers.

Very few journalists have mastered this art and there are many reasons for it. Editors have a big role in increasing the frequency of science news in mass media. Most newspapers and electronic media do not have a science desk. Science news is covered by journalists who are not trained in science and is assigned based on need. This translates into distortion of science news. Scientists are reluctant to talk to the media fearing what they say may be misquoted which will tarnish their image among their peers. However, there are a few very good science writers, though this number is really very small and is largely outnumbered by their colleagues and editors who do not do justice to science news and coverage.

It would be good for all science courses to offer a module on science journalism to equip science graduates with science communicating skills. All science graduates will be involved in communicating science in one way or another in their working life and a module on science journalism will enable them to so efficiently.

There are very few quality science programmes on television produced locally. This should be looked into. I strongly believe that the Ministry of Information should take a lead role in communicating science to the public to complement the efforts of Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.

I remember attending the launch of Pakistan Biotechnology Information Centre (PABIC) that was officiated by the Minister of Information in Islamabad. It was indeed really heartening to hear the minister announce that he will instruct the national television station to air snippets of biotech information during prime time. I wish Malaysia could follow suit. Imagine the number of people we could reach out if scientific information is aired during prime viewing time. This will enrich and transform our society into a science literate society.

According to UNICEF, the literacy rate of Malaysia among youth (15-24 years old) is 97%. This is a remarkable achievement since independence. Let us now concentrate on science literacy as well.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Biofuel Debate (3rd Part)

Dear readers, here I am writing my final article on the series of Biofuel. Unfortunately interest in Biofuel among public, industry and even government is at the lowest now simply because crude petroleum is trading around USD 40 per barrel. Besides that, people are now more worried about retaining their job from retrenchment than to worry about global warming and green energy. If the petrol price trades at this rate, biofuel players will never be able to compete with oil producers that have well established distribution line and mass produces oil at cost below USD 25 per barrel. The following news write up explains the issue, click here for the news.

Despite the lack of interest in biofuel, we should not stop researching in the quest for an alternative fuel. In fact this will be indeed the best time as we can take on research on a slow, steady pace and not rush into taking a wrong approach. In my last post, I did mention that palm biodiesel may not be the best option despite having the best yield per hectare compared to other oil producing crops due to food fuel competition.

As I was in the midst of completing this article, I came across two interesting article published on the same day. First article appears to warn investors and plantation companies on the decreasing profit margin due to increasing global stock and decreasing palm oil price. The second article is an announcement by our government to introduce Palm Biodiesel at pumps in January 2010. According to the minister, five percent of Malaysia’s total consumption of 10million tones of diesel will be replaced by palm biodiesel. I believe this announcement is made on a basis that the current excessive stock can be diverted for biodiesel production in order to boost faltering palm oil prices. On the other hand, from the first article we can see that local planters have put on hold or lowered their fertilizer application to choke production by third quarter. I don’t have much knowledge in economy but allow me to assume a probable situation by third quarter next year. Palm oil production hits the lowest, demand increases due to conversion of palm biodiesel and CPO price goes up (which of cause will benefit the planter). It makes me wonder how the government is planning to market palm biodiesel alongside with petroleum diesel if the petroleum price remains low as it is now. Will this also affect our cooking oil price? This is definitely a game with many uncertain factors to fit in a perfect sustainable balance to benefit the public, planters and the industry players at same time.

I personally believe that the best source for biofuel should have these criteria. First and foremost, biofuel should not be produced from source that is used to produce food. Producing fuel from corn and rapeseed has its own disadvantages as they are both used for food and feed. Ideally if a plant is going to be used to produce biodiesel, it should grow with minimal input (fertilizers and mechanical effort) from growers. If too much input goes into producing biofuel, we actually end up using more energy in production than the total energy available for end user.

One of the plants that recently stole the limelight from palm biodiesel is jatropha. Jatropha fruit is not edible, thus does not compete with food. It grows on marginalized land with less water requirement which is an important factor in saving fertile land for other food crops. In fact, government has taken the right initiate by directing MPOB to study on Jatropha biodiesel production and LGM to look into identifying the best clones as the genetic makeup of jatropha is very similar to rubber tree. With right synergetic efforts from MPOB and LGM, we can predict to have in the near future a golden crop that has the potential to satisfy our thirst for fuel. One major problem with Jatropha lies in harvesting the fruits which mature at different times and is labour intensive. But with the right research direction and the use of technology such as MAS and GM technology, high yielding superior clones can be produced which can offset the high cost of harvesting.

Another biofuel source worth looking at is producing biofuel from algae. It makes a lot of sense producing biofuel from algae for few reasons. Firstly it requires minimal input to grow and it grows at a very high rate with sufficient sunlight and water (doesn’t require fresh water, can survive with seawater). Secondly, algae produce high content of biofuel in terms of dry weight ratio as well as land use. Third and most interesting fact is that it is possible to feed CO2 into the production lines which can be obtained from factory byproduct (carbon credit offset). Practically, algae can be grown in large tubes filled with waste water and CO2 with free sunlight in a large field. Not only producing algae can be cheaper, it can reduce greenhouse gasses and sell carbon credits. If these methods can be perfected, algae are definitely a good source for biofuel. An interesting read to complement algae biofuel use, click here.

Besides Jatropha and algae, biofuel can also be produced from used cooking oil, food waste (fats and grease), cellulosic ethanol and many other bio-source that contains high oil. I was even told by a friend that in some parts of the world, liposuction fats from cosmetic clinics are being collected to produce biofuel. I am not sure how true this is, but theoretically it is possible. On a lighter note, let’s not limit our imaginations in quest for the perfect alternative fuel for this hungry world.

p.s. These are my personal views based on my observation. I may be wrong with the economics of palm biodiesel. Please comment your views if you find my article not accurate.

By Joel William

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

My New Year Wish List

I don’t believe in making new year resolutions, as I always feel you don’t have to wait till the end of the year to make a resolution or make resolutions only once a year. I make resolutions whenever there is a need. So, throughout the year, I make several resolutions. It is like running a company, whenever there is an urgent need, you call for an Extraordinary General Meeting and make resolutions...

However, I do have a wish list for the coming year. Here it is:

1. More concerted efforts among various ministries to promote biotechnology and see that we achieve what is outlined in our National Biotechnology Policy. This includes Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation; Ministry of Agriculture and Agrobased Industry; Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities; Ministry of Health; Ministry of Education; Ministry of Higher Education; Ministry of International Trade and Industry, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Ministry of Entrepreneur and Co-operative Development; Ministry of Energy, Water and Communication; Ministry of Information, etc.

2. Establishment of a balanced, science-based and industry-friendly Act and regulations on various aspects of biotechnology – IP, new plant variety, GLP, GCP, biosafety, etc.

3. More communication between scientists and the public on the development of science and technology.

4. More science news on newspapers and national TV channels.

5. Funds and grants for research, development and commercialization to be channelled in a more productive and efficient manner.

6. More funds for R&D – but for truly deserving projects with the interest of the nation

7. More collaboration between research institutes, universities and the industry and reduction of duplications in research.

8. Serious efforts in reducing brain drain – providing scholarships to deserving students, creating conducive working environment for scientists, providing excellent career advancement for deserving scientists.

9. Serious efforts in developing human capital in various biotechnology fields, upgrading the quality of local universities in terms of teaching and research.


10. Shedding off counter-productive sentiments – anti-globalization, anti-MNCs, and beliefs based on emotions and not science and facts.


By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Biotech Revolution in Agriculture: Where is Malaysia?

Agriculture is a dynamic, ever evolving field. The Green Revolution that took place between the 1940s and 1960s transformed the agriculture landscape and successfully led to significant increase in food production. During this period, technologies introduced included agrochemicals, irrigation projects, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, mechanization, and plant breeding. This revolution prevented starvation, increased farmers’ income, and produced high yielding crops, in spite of constant pessimism and scaremongering by critics. Nobel Peace Laureate Prof. Norman Borlaug, the man behind the Green Revolution and his team had to face confrontation with bureaucrats, resistance from local seed breeders, and centuries of farmers’ customs, habits, and superstitious. Nevertheless, from 1950 to 1992, the world’s grain output rose from 692 million tons produced on 1.70 billion acres of cropland to 1.9 billion tons on 1.73 billion acres of cropland. This was an increase in the yield of more than 150 percent. Without high-yield agriculture, either millions would have starved or increases in food output would have been realized only through drastic expansion of acres under cultivation. This would have resulted in loss of pristine wilderness, a hundred times greater than all the losses to urban and suburban expansion.

The big challenge in the next 50 years is to double crop production on the same area of land in the face of climate change and decreased water supplies and feeding the anticipated global population of more than eight billion people. The current revolution in agriculture revolves around biotechnology which will be able to meet the challenge. Genetic Modification (GM) technology offers a solution to complement conventional techniques. This new biotechnology can help us to do things that we could not do before, and do it in a more precise, predictable, and efficient way. However, the crucial question is whether farmers will be permitted to use the technology with many naysayers and scare-mongers creating fear about this technology.

Malaysia is in the right track with agriculture identified as the third engine of growth. With a high import bill and acknowledging the fact the agriculture not only provides food, but also feed, fiber and fuel, this sector certainly need to be revisited and revitalized. However, it is important of us to stay focused and be farsighted. Many fail to realize that GM crops have stood the test of time. Last year, 247 million acres of GM crop were successfully farmed by 10 million farmers in 22 countries. Increase in yield, reduced use of pesticides and reduced agriculture footprints were some of the benefits experienced and documented. Malaysia need to be pragmatic in facing our challenges – the huge food import bill, the aging agrarian community, the complete dependency of our livestock industry on imported feed, and the unexploited markets and potential of our fruits, flowers, ornamentals and timber among others.

Any new technology need to be assessed but it should be done based on good science and not swayed by anti-business, anti-technology and anti-globalization sentiments. Skeptics and critics of the GM technology constantly spread junk-science to scare the public but none of their claims of catastrophe have come about. The World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and Academies of Sciences around the world have reported no evidence of health or environment harm from GM crops.

Malaysia has all the ingredients to succeed in the biotechnology sector and we should learn from the other countries that have created a mark in this field to prevent unwarranted delay. A sensible approach will take us a long way instead of reinventing the wheel. The question should be: Where is Malaysia and where do we want to be?
by Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Friday, December 5, 2008

Conventional Breeding vs Genetic Modification (Part 2)

I got an interesting comment on my article posted sometime ago:

I started responding to the comment and it got too long, that I decided to post it as an article. Here is my response:

We have to first understand that there is nothing such as absolute safety. But what we can safely say is that in spite of many anti GMO claims, GM crops present not new or different risks. National Academies, Royal Societies and Scientific Societies around the globe have reviewed the underlying science and all have come to the same conclusion. The technology is more precise and better defined than conventional plant breeding and it produces fewer and smaller genetic changes. When regulators in the EU or Australia or Japan approve a new GM crop, they do it with the certainty that it is as safe as any other crop. Determined anti GM activists have spread all sorts of fears about the technology but the scientific community believes that when newly developed GM products are approved by regulators the world over, they are the best studied and safest crops we have ever planted.

There is an extensive scientific literature on safety studies and thousands of papers about safety of specific crops. None of these reveal any flaws in the case-by-case assessment process. Those kinds of studies have been independently done and published. When anti GM activists have no answer for the facts the only thing they can do is try to impeach the source in the hope that listeners will believe them without consulting the literature.

There is more research on GM crops being done in the public sector and in developing countries than there is in the private sector. Big companies have given their technology free of charge to projects designed to help the poor and hungry. People who run misinformation campaigns know that it is always a good idea to give the audience a villain to hate. Many of the arguments against biotech companies are simply anti-globalization and anti-capitalist arguments. It would be better if this debate were held on the merits of globalization and capitalism rather than through a back door attack on a surrogate produced by companies—in this case, GM crops. Personally, I find things produced by giant companies very useful. They produced my computer, my car, the food I eat, the clothes I wear, the communication systems I use, and the energy that cools and powers my house. To those all anti-industry individuals out there, I say – please stop using any products produced by the industry...

I agree completely that it depends on who one listens to and who one believes. One should be very careful in choosing who to believe. In this debate there are giant companies trying to sell products but there are also anti-GM activists whose livelihood comes from continual campaigns against this and other technologies. I have chosen to believe the consensus of the scientific literature. In this case there are numerous peer-reviewed papers that document large reductions in chemical use associated with a switch to GM crops (see Brooks and Barfoot, Pray et al. etc). Given the staggering amount of evidence on this topic it is amazing that those who oppose the technology still go on spreading junk science, oblivious to all the scientific evidence.

That is also another fallacy generated by opponents of GM crops. Saying something again and again doesn’t make it true. FAO says there is not only not enough food in the world to feed the world population and that the situation is getting worse by the day. Food reserves have fallen to all time low and food prices are near all time high. In spite of the Millennium Goals, the number of hungry is going up not down.

Risk analysis is a comparative process in which we analyze one product or process against another. When we compare GM crops with conventional crops we conclude they are actually safer. That’s a scientific risk assessment. It does not mean that conventionally bred crops are unsafe—not at all, we eat them every day and know that they are safe. It does mean that GM crops are no more risky and are usually less risky than conventional foods. There are no villains, monsters or heroes here. Just foods that is as safe as others. The point being made is simply that there is more uncertainty with conventional crops than GM crops, more changes in the DNA could have taken place, composition could have changed more dramatically, and there is a greater risk of producing toxicants or allergens by conventional breeding than there is with GM crops. But none of this means conventional crops are any less safe than we know them to be—it is merely a good way of putting GM crops in the proper perspective to compare their safety with that of conventional crops.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Opportunities in Biobusiness: Creating Wealth with Biology

Anyone who is looking to invest should seriously consider Asia. This is the fastest growing region that offers great opportunities. With its population rapidly moving up the socioeconomic hierarchy, there are unlimited opportunities for investors and entrepreneurs to create value and wealth. One area that generates lots of excitement is “biology” or “biotechnology” to be more specific.

Biotechnology is an age-old technology that has evolved tremendously to meet the modern requirements of humankind and at same time contributes towards the well-being of the environment. Many successful bioentrepreneurs have proven that the popular notion that scientists can’t make money is merely a myth. What is required is probably a good sense of business orientation, some knowledge in finance, marketing, and other entrepreneur skills. Not to forget perseverance and the right mindset.

Recently I read a book authored by Prof. Paul Teng of Nanyang Technological University Singapore – “Bioscience Entrepreneurship in Asia: Creating Value with Biology”. One will be surprised by the various means offered by biology for the creation of value and wealth. This area is not just limited to highly skilled personnel, scientists or huge multinationals but the doors are open to people from all walks of life and for small entreprises too. One simple example is the production of planting materials using tissue culture techniques. Once the skills and the inner works of tissue culture are mastered, anyone can start a ‘production line’ to produce quality planting materials. There is huge potential and market in this area – from producing for plantation to nurseries and household. The plants too can vary from fruits trees to ornamental, commodities, herbs, and timber.

Biopesticides and biofertilizers, anyone? There are numerous options in these areas as well. Not to mention production of food, organic acids, enzymes, vitamins, and amino acids through biofermentation.

Have you ever imagined a mushroom business? This can lead to the production of food and nutraceuticals.

What I have mentioned here are just a few examples. There are unlimited options. A good approach might be some joint ventures with research institutes and scientists who could offer their expertise for beginners. A number of research institutes in Malaysia such as MARDI and FRIM offer licenses to those interested in using their technology for commercialization. With the incentives and support provided by the government through the Malaysian Biotechnology Corporation, the dream of owning a bioenterprise is within reach.

Furthermore, through this industry, bioentrepreneurs are able to contribute to the wellbeing of the nation and community as products, technology and services developed using biotechnology could help to enhance the quality of life, food security, and reduce negative impact to the environment.

The good news is, in Asia the industry has not reached its saturation point and there are unexploited market, products, technology and services. One just has to be innovative and bark the right tree.

For those who are interested to read the book, look for Bioscience Entrepreneurship in Asia: Creating Value in Biology, Paul S. Teng, 2008. World Scientific.

by Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Friday, November 28, 2008

MABIC is hiring!

MABIC is looking for a suitable candidate to fill in the position of Biotechnology Information Officer. Below are the details:

The Job:

· The Biotechnology Information Officer will be fully responsible for the management of MABIC website, its databases and information resources
· Assist the Executive Director in initiating programmes and activities for its stakeholders
· Take up speaking engagements
· Helps in the dissemination of information about biotechnology to stakeholders and responds to queries
· Coordinate logistics for MABIC activities such as seminars, workshops, and meetings


The Person:
· Possess at least a Bachelor’s degree in biotechnology, biology or any related field
· Has excellent command of written and spoken English language
· Basic knowledge of information technology tools, such as HTML, database
· Able to work independently but a team player
· Willing to travel both within and outside Malaysia
· Excellent interpersonal skills
· At least 1-2 years of experience, but fresh graduates are encouraged to apply

For more information on MABIC, visit:

Applications should be sent to:
Executive Director
Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre
2-5-40 Monash University Malaysia
Jalan Lagoon Selatan, Bandar Sunway
46150 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Tel: 03-551 46174
Fax: 03-55146184


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Internships: First dip into the industry

The completion of a tertiary education can never be said as being fulfilled without industry experience. Students, who have been cooped up in the ivory tower for so long, find it hard to adapt to the dynamic and demanding lifestyle of the working environment without prior experience. Similarly, many companies have been complaining on the lack-luster quality of graduates, unable to cope with the needs and demands of the industry. I have mentioned this previously in many of my posts on nurturing human capital, and I have generally held the view that both parties should be more proactive and held responsible for this predicament. However, I foresee a way out. It is called “an internship”, aka industrial training.

If one looks at most established companies, it is not hard to find interns milling about the company premises. Many a story have been written about the experiences of an intern, ranging from being treated as an office boy/girl, to being shown the loops of the industry which culminated in an ultimately successful career. However it may turn out, this would still be a student’s first experience with the industry. Even if the supervisor is a Miranda Priestly (of Devil Wears Prada persuasion) wannabe, there are far more that one may experience through the “ordeal”. In the words of an acquaintance of mine, “The ‘horror’ (of the bad internship) will end, but the links and connections (forged during this period) will survive.”

Not that I am trying to say that internships would be horrifying, but it certainly is a challenge. And unless students are not only willing to step up to the challenge, but also be proactive in seeking opportunities to improve oneself, they would be left behind.

Companies and policy makers are starting to understand the importance of such training. At a recent seminar, the general manager of a Bionexus status bioinformatics company mentioned to the general audience that the company has an internship programme to help graduates understand the loops of the industry. The Managing Director of a biotech product development company has mentioned to me on many occasions how he employs staff from the various interns the company takes in from the biotech field every year. Similarly, BiotechCorp, the one stop biotech support center under the purview of MOSTI, had announced a Biotechnology Special Training Programme for Unemployed Life Sciences Graduates (BeST) which is a six-month intensive and structured retooling programme combining classroom-based instruction, laboratory work and industry internship.

The opportunities that are available are endless. Now, with the “adults” opening up the avenues and showing the way to move to students, my only advice is, “Go, explore and experience to the fullest”. Maybe one day, the “lowly” intern will blossom and become one of the movers-and-shakers of the local or even global biotech industry.

Monday, November 17, 2008

EU’s GM aversion costs €2.5 billion a year

The European livestock sector is losing €2.5bn a year thanks to EU time-wasting on authorising GM feeds and a zero-tolerance policy on new GM varieties, according to a report by agricultural trade researchers.

While feed prices have been hit by poor harvests and world-wide shortages, EU import bans on GM maize have pushed up prices further, the report by organisations including the Agricultural Industries Confederation says.

An estimated 15% of losses in the sector are caused by EU delays, it adds.

The researchers, who have sent their report to European Commission president Jose Manuel Barrosso, said policy needed to change before the livestock industry was "destroyed" due to lack of feeds.

AIC said the situation would get worse unless EU policy towards GMs was altered.

With new GM varieties due to be commercialised in 2009, increased use of GM crops in North America and Brazil and GM residues contaminating non-GM crops, finding importers who could provide non-GM soya feeds would become increasingly difficult, AIC said.

The EU is 78% dependent on imported animal proteins like soya and there are few domestic alternatives, it added.

by Lucy Busuttil for Farmers Weekly Interactive

Comments from malaysia4biotech:
It is amusing that EU bans GM feed but imports livestock products of animals fed with GM feed. It is clear that the denial of GM products in the EU is nothing more than a trade barrier. This double standard completely lacks science-based decisions. EU is already facing pressure from their farming communities to allow GM feed to enter the country. With the current global shortage of grains, the government will have a big problem persuading consumers that GMOs are safe, when they have denied this in the past.
Many developing countries are influenced by the positions taken by EU, which is heavily influenced by Green NGOs.

Norman Borloug, Father of Green Revolution says this:
"Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."

When NGOs say we need to farm sustainably, they mean the farmers... not them. These NGOs should try to get themselves dirty in the soilbeds, sweating and back-breaking, with a fork and spade. Imagine being a woman trying to feed five kids, lost her husband to HIV, working from dawn to sunset on arid land, without irrigation, fresh water, fertilisers and quality seeds. Who deprives them of technology and quality life?
By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Global Entrepreneurship Week Seminar: Bio-entrepreneurship: Driving the New Economy

Bio-entrepreneurship: Driving the New Economy

19th November 2008
University Kuala Lumpur

The 21 st century has been widely touted as a century for the renaissance of the ‘New Biology' in the form of life science and biotechnology. Asia is currently a source of global economic growth where the demand for bio0based products for food, feed, fiber and industrial materials is fast growing. Putting all these together gives an exciting mix for innovation and entrepreneurship. Malaysia realized these opportunity and has a forward looking biotechnology policy in place which was launched in 2005.

The Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (MABIC) and Malaysian Bio Industry Organization (MBIO) are jointly organizing a seminar on “Bioentrepreneurship: Driving the New Economy”. This seminar is hosted by University Kuala Lumpur and is in conjunction with the Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) which is a global initiative to inspire young people to embrace innovation and creativity.

The seminar will feature industry players from Synamatix Sdn Bhd (a bioinformatics company with global presence), Infovalley Sdn Bhd (a BioIT company), StemLife Sdn Bhd (the pioneer in stem cell banking and therapy), and a scientists from Forest Research Institute Malaysia who has successfully created many entrepreneurs producing planting materials from tissue culture. Dr. Arif Anwar, Mr. Mathavan Chandran, Ms. Su Hu Yong, and Dr. Kodiswaran Kandasamy will speak on the various opportunities available in biobusiness based on their scope of business, starting up biobusiness, the challenges, potential, the needs of the business, and what it takes to be successful in this area.

Admission is Free.

For more information and registration, please call Mr. Liew Kong Cheng: 016 3681987 or email:

Friday, November 7, 2008

Biofuel Debate (2nd Part)

I am definitely not qualified to debate on biofuel as im not an economist, an industry player, an activist and definitely not a politician thus my views are going to be very personal and general. From what I have been observing lately, on the global and local trend on biofuel, there seems to be groups that believe in this golden oil and critics who oppose this technology. In my previous post, I uploaded a link in which Sillicon Valley billionaire, Vinod Khosla presented passionately on the potential of biofuel which can reduce the dependence on black gold (petroleum) drastically. His vision was instantaneously criticized by biofuel critics. It is difficult to deny the importance of critics, as they serve to keep technology in a check and balance manner, but unfortunately, those opposing new technology often does it beyond logic and without scientific relevance. Some of which we can see in cases where GM Food is often said to be dangerous even when there has not been a single food safety issue since the technology was commercialized more than 10 years ago.

I am not going to discuss on the benefits raised by Khosla or the issues brought up by the critics, but I am going to discuss some of the main issues plaguing bifuel players in Malaysia. When biofuel or biodiesel is mentioned, the first thing that comes to our mind is fuel from palm oil. Biodiesel is not all about palm oil. Biodiesel is actually fatty acid or known as ethyl esters. These are byproduct of the reaction between vegetable oil and ethanol. Any vegetable oil can be transformed into biodiesel, even used cooking oil can be filtered and processed to be used as biodiesel.

Producing biodiesel from palm oil has its advantages. Recently I came across an article published in The New York Times, which claims that we are converting forests into palm oil farms so rapidly that Malaysia is running out of uncultivated land. This statement was clearly made without the understanding that oil palm trees are the most productive oil producer compared to other oil crops. It simply means, to produce one ton of palm oil requires far less land than other crops such as canola or rapeseed. At an average production rate, 600 to 700 gallons of biodiesel can be produced per acre. Malaysia is blessed with the right environment and climate which propelled us to be one the largest palm oil producer supplying nearly half of the world demands. But despite this advantage, producing biodiesel from palm oil may not be the best strategy.

So far 91 manufacturing licenses for biodiesel plants have been approved but only five is in operation. Few years back the government had to stop giving out licenses due to too many applications but now they are requesting those who are not interested to return the license. This clearly shows that there are some pertinent issues on the reluctant shown by the industry players to start producing biodiesel. One of the main reasons for this is the fluctuating Crude Palm Oil (CPO) price in the market. This causes unpredictability for the industry players to determine a standard price as well as to forecast profit. Adding more uncertainty to this equation is the price of crude petroleum prices that is not stable. Palm biodiesel will only interest the industry if the petroleum prices are high and CPO prices are low. Not only this is a rare case as the CPO at most times tag along with petroleum, but even if this ideal state can be attained, it doesn’t stay in that way for a long time. This is one of the main reasons on why palm biodiesel did not live up to the hype that was created years ago.

Besides the trade and pricing issue, converting too much palm oil to biodiesel may reduce the supply of oil used for food production which then will affect the prices of food. European environmentalists are already bringing up unsubstantiated claims that Malaysia and Indonesia are clearing up forest to meet the demand for biodiesel. Thus we can’t simply increase our production by planting more oil palm trees but we have to find alternative ways to increase yield maybe through the use of biotechnology to produce better variety. Until then mass production of biodiesel from palm oil has to be put on hold. On my third and final discussion, I will discuss on other alternative ways to produce sustainable biofuel.

By Joel William

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The New Economy

Recession is setting in; share prices are plunging; food prices are soaring; many companies are wrapping up. Many countries are gearing up to face the financial uncertainties that are in store globally. Is this going to be worse than the 1997 financial turmoil? We don’t know. Many MNCs are moving out of Malaysia. Furthermore, Vietnam and China seem to be a preferred choice among investors and those looking to expand their business in the Asian region.

From an agrarian economy, Malaysia moved on to manufacturing sectors. Now the agriculture sector is being revisited. But how committed are we in promoting this? How are the different ministries and agencies working together to bring glory to our agriculture sector by modernizing and transforming it? How are universities supporting the government’s agenda? How much of importance is accorded to the agriculture courses in the universities? Do we have a target of the number of plant breeders, plant pathologists, soil scientists, entomologists, etc that need to be achieved within a stipulated period? How much of funds are allocated for research in agriculture?
As in many countries, the agrarian community is aging. And the younger generation does not perceive agriculture to be lucrative and glamorous. The plantation industry in Malaysia depends on foreign labourers extensively. How can we change these scenarios?

The agriculture sector should be revived with massive efforts and strategies. Interest in agriculture among students should be inculcated. If we are serious about this business, the courses in agriculture at tertiary levels should be enhanced and given great prominence. In fact, Universiti Putra Malaysia (formerly known as Universiti Pertanian Malaysia) should be geared to become one of the best agriculture universities in the region. Instead of competing with each other, duplicating research, and working in isolation, local universities should identify their areas of expertise, focus on this and excel further to become world class institutes.

Scientists from various institutes and universities should collaborate on priority research areas in this field. Crops should be identified, e.g. rice, fruits, ornamentals and flowers, feed crops, etc for improvement. Research teams should be formed at national levels based on expertise and funds should be channelled in a transparent manner by independent bodies headed by impartial personnel.

Malaysia could be one of the key exporters of agricultural products in the region. Our tropical fruits and ornamentals is one of our strengths. However, it is disheartening to see that agro-based industry still largely revolves around making snacks. We should move on to produce the best seedlings and planting materials. Prolonged shelf life, enhanced flavour, and disease and pest resistant tropical fruits should be explored. Feed crops should be researched more to reduce our dependency on imported feed.

Where is our seed industry and business, in spite of all the talks of transforming our agriculture sector?

Let us walk our talk before it is too late!

Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

UK: GM Protesters 'On Messianic Mission'

UK farming minister Lord Rooker last night hit out at anti-GM protesters, claiming they were on a "messianic mission" not based on science and that the public were being "taken for a ride" by campaigners who behaved as if opposition to the technology was a "religion".Amid mounting frustration at the emotive debate being hijacked by talk of "Frankenstein foods", the minister warned Britain was at risk of losing its position as a world leader in bio-technology because of ignorant public opposition to the development of genetically modified food.He said public attitudes to scientific developments - including GM - had to change or the experiments would simply be carried out overseas, adding: "I think we haven't taken it seriously." He said the public would accept GM technology in medicines for themselves and loved ones, but went on: "It is a difficult issue with food."If the ignorance prevails, we don't allow experiments to take place because of the fear you might find a result you don't want. We just put up with people trashing the crops and magistrates let them off. Frankly, we're just being taken for a ride."And in a stark warning to extremist protesters, he said: "One thing I will not accept is the arguments and the slogans when there isn't any evidence. They are on a messianic mission. It is almost a religion where there isn't any science base to it."Andrew Opie, food policy director of the British Retail Consortium, said: "We don't sell it because nobody wants it. There isn't a demand for GM crops, and we have perfectly good non-GM food in this country."
Paul Temple, vice-president of the NFU, said: "Europe is not engaging in the debate. And it's for political reasons in Europe. It will cause huge problems in the supply chain in future, and we should be talking about it now. We are driving investment in this technology to North America, South America, India and China. Plant genetics is absolutely vital for the future of agriculture."

Thanks to AgBioView for this article.

My hope is that we do not allow our country to be colonised by our colonial masters and blindly follow their positions, which most of the time is shaped by Green NGOs. Let us think for ourselves, what is important for the future of the nation, our welfare, and long-term priorities.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

BioFuel Debate (1st part)

Biofuels originate from some type of biomass, or biological matter that can be used for fuel. The two most common types of biofuels are bioethanol and biodiesel. Bioethanol is created by fermenting sugar or starch; corn and sugar are most often used. Biodiesel, on the other hand, is made by combining alcohol, usually methanol, with vegetable oil, such as that found in soybeans, palm oil, animal fat or recycled cooking grease. Once biomass is converted into liquid fuel, it can be used for a variety of energy needs. Biofuel is not something new; in fact the first diesel engine by Rudolph Diesel in 1894 was made to run on biodiesel (hempseed oil).

Despite being around for more than a century, biofuel did not receive much attention until quite recently. Biofuel's popularity actually depends very much on the price of petroleum and there weren't any interest in biofuel when petroleum price was below USD$30.00 per barrel.

The use of biofuel as an alternative energy has got many countries exited including Malaysia. In the recent BioMalaysia opening speech, our PM has urged all relevant agencies to focus on new and economically viable biotech methods to produce renewable energy. But unfortunately biofuel receives a lot of negative connotation from the critics who believes that biofuel is not the real solution to the energy crisis. There is also the debate on the use of food crops to produce biofuel which can lead to increase of commodities prices such as palm oil if the oil palm is diverted to produce biofuel rather than for food.

In fact MPOB has also been directed to research on Jatropha on the viable production of biodiesel. Jatropha isn't new to Malaysia. I was told by an entrepreneur that Jatropha was brought to Malaysia by the Japanese during World War II to fuel their vehicles.

Before I get into real argument on which will be the best biofuel option for Malaysia, I would like to share the video presentation (Biofuels: Think Outside The Barrel) by Sillicon Valley billionaire, Vinod Khosla. In his one hour presentation, he shares his vision on making biofuel the best alternative to fosil fuel.

By Joel William

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Boost to Malaysian Biotechnology

The recently concluded BioMalaysia 2008 was a success, which saw the convergence of science and the industry. The exhibition reflected the seriousness of companies, both local and foreign in the industry. Compared to previous years, more ‘real’ biotech work was exhibited by both the private and the public sectors. These are certainly some good signs.

But the darling of the event was our Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi who gave an excellent speech and showed his commitments in developing this sector and ensuring the nation sees the fruits of labour. This is important as so much of resources have been spent, in terms of funds, time, and human capital. As I always say – there is no turning back and we only have one speed option – full throttle. Biotechnology is not only the engine of growth for Malaysia, but globally. Countries that do not realise this will be lagging behind.

Serious and urgent efforts need to be taken to create conducive environment for the industry and research to flourish. I would like to reproduce part of his speech here:

The pool of Malaysian biotechnology knowledge workers, scientists and researchers must be expanded. Present efforts by public and private institutions to train qualified graduates must make a quantum leap in order to support the quantity and quality demanded by the industry. The legal and regulatory environment must be simplified to reduce delays and uncertainties, whilst maintaining protection of intellectual property as well as safeguarding the environment. The quality of R&D must be improved to increase the chances for commercialisation and value creation.

These are long-term issues, requiring consistent and steady effort. If all parties work together, with unity of purpose, there is nothing that cannot be achieved. Policymakers, regulators, scientists and industry participants must engage and understand each other. Complex issues, such as those involving industry development and environmental preservation, should be discussed in a way that leads to accord and solution. We must always be ready to meet each other half-way as we try to build a sustainable and competitive industry, while ensuring ethical conduct and ecological protection.

The Prime Minister rightly pointed out the need to build human capital, ensuring a balanced regulatory regime, and enhancing the quality of R&D work. My favourite was his request for policymakers, regulators, scientists and the industry to work together in drawing policies and regulations. Many do not realise that the repercussions of stringent regulatory regime or the lack of it. We have to strike a balance. This must be done in a transparent manner, after intensive and continued consultation with all stakeholders, and taking into account all the implications. No one wants to create disasters to the environment. In fact, modern biotechnology, particularly GM technology has not caused any negative effects to the environment or human and animals. Instead of being paranoid about emerging technology, we should be pragmatic and be able to weigh its benefits and potential risks. Regulations should be drawn to minimise risks and not completely halt the development of technology. Many technologies would not have passed the acid test if precautionary principles were applied. Automotive industry is an excellent example. The No. 1 killer in Malaysia is road accidents. However, that has not reduced the number of cars on the road.

I hope the advice from the Prime Minister will be taken seriously in decision making processes in order to give the biotech industry a push forward.
By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Friday, October 10, 2008

Revisiting Agriculture

Malaysia moved from agriculture based economy in the 1970s to he manufacturing and electronics in the 1980s and now is revisiting the agriculture sector. In the last few years the agriculture sector has been accorded prominent emphasis and identified as the third engine of economic growth. Whereas, under the National Biotechnology Policy this sector is listed as the number one thrust. This move by the government is commendable and is certainly a far-sighted one in light of food security problems faced globally. As a nation that has high food import bill and far from being self-sufficient in terms of food production, we need to rethink our strategies in transforming our agriculture sector. All industrial countries were once agriculture-based economies. This is evident as agriculture growth was the precursor to the industrial revolutions that spread across the temperate world from England in the mid-18th century to Japan in the late 19th century. In recent years we are witnessing rapid agricultural growth in China, India and Vietnam and this is going to give a boost to their economy. Agriculture too, has a well-established record as an instrument for poverty reduction.

However, promoting and developing this sector does not come without problems. Agriculture leaves the largest environmental footprint – from reduced biodiversity, mismanaged irrigation water, agrochemical pollution, and health hazards and deaths from pesticide poisoning. On top of this, aging farming population and shortage of labourers are some of the main constraints in the Malaysian agriculture scene. Nevertheless, the answer is not to slow agricultural development, but to seek more sustainable production systems and enhance the productivity of this sector.

The recent report prepared by World Bank entitled “The State of Agriculture Report 2008” has dissected the issues plaguing the agriculture sector especially in the developing world and strategies to eradicate poverty among farmers and increase productivity. Among the strategies recommended were improved access to water and irrigation, well functioning land market that could facilitate transfer of lands, proper education system, improved price incentives and quality and quantity of public investments. The report gave major prominence to promising technology and innovation like the genetic modification (GM) technology that can make agriculture more sustainable with minimum tradeoffs.

Below are excerpts from the World Bank report that will provide an insight of its view on GM technology.

“Countries and farmers that are slow to adopt GM technology may lose their competitiveness as global commodity prices fall with broader adoption in large exporting countries. Further delays in developing and adopting GM technology mean further delays in the substantial economic gains that could accrue to poor producers”.

“GM crops are a powerful tool to help farmers adapt to climate change through the more rapid addition of genes for drought and flood tolerance. Continued and unnecessary delays and skepticism are creating serious opportunity costs for society by preventing Golden Rice and other promising GM food crops from reducing malnutrition and saving millions of lives in many poor countries sooner rather than later”.

The Malaysian agriculture sector will grow to greater heights with the merging of conventional and modern biotechnology applications to develop new varieties of seeds, planting materials, biofertilizers, and biopesticides. We need high yielding varieties of crops with good resistance to pests and diseases. Synchronised ripening in the case of some crops, such as cocoa and pepper can help in reducing labour intensiveness. Some of these challenges can be met by adopting GM technology. It is not denied that any new technology comes with risks, however, with a proper risk-benefit analysis, risk assessment and management strategies, and a balanced and proper regulatory system, this technology could serve as a powerful tool to boost out agriculture sector. Ultimately a strong, transparent, cost-effective regulatory system will not only ensure safety but also boost public confidence and foreign and local investments.

Innovations in the agriculture sector have been driven rapidly by private companies in developed countries. Developing countries will only be able to share the pie if the knowledge divide between industrial and developing countries, and private and public sectors is narrowed. To achieve this, sharply increased investments in research and development activities must be at the top of the policy agenda. China and India are moving in the right direction, with investment in agricultural R&D tripled over the past 20 years. These countries should be emulated. With all other countries racing along this line, Malaysia should not be lagging or left behind. We have all the ingredients to success on our plate – good policy, funding capacity, rich biodiversity, and excellent past record in agriculture. What we need now is proper implementation and execution plans and a far-sighted vision.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

BioMalaysia 2008


Conference & Exhibition
7 – 9 October 2008
Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre

BioMalaysia, Malaysia’s premier global biotechnology conference and exhibition is just around the corner. This significant event is jointly organized by Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) and Malaysia Biotechnology Corporation (BiotechCorp) with the support from Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (MABIC) and Malaysian Bio-Industry Organisation (MBIO).

The theme for BioMalaysia 2008 is “Strengthening Value Creation in Biotechnology”. Value creation in biotechnology underscores the escalation of science to market – including opportunities in discovery, new technology, funding, entrepreneurship and in building the biotechnology business.

BioMalaysia 2008 will feature more than 60 presentations in 3 tracks by local and foreign biotechnology experts presenting Malaysian and International perspective on significant biotechnology and life science issues including:-

- Handling World Food Crisis
- BioNexus Status
- Market Driven Research for Biotechnology
- Structural Biotechnology in Drug Development
- Getting Natural Products to Commercialization
- Global Partnership
- Challenges for Developing Countries in Marketing Biotech

This event will also serve as a platform for all Malaysian Life Science researchers to meet and network as well as to forge closer research collaboration and to exchange knowledge. At the exhibition, more that 170 local and international booth will showcase latest biotechnology product discoveries and innovations. We, MABIC bloggers will be attending the conference as well as the exhibition and you can meet us for a chat, maybe over coffee. See you all at BioMalaysia 2008 and we wish all Muslims, “Selamat Hari Raya”.

For BioMalaysia 2008 Conference registration, please visit :-

Friday, September 26, 2008

Mandatory vs Voluntary Labelling of GM products

Next time you buy your groceries, please check for items that contain derivatives from three major GM crops – soy, corn and canola. They come in the form of lecithin, emulsifiers, hydrolysed oil, starch, cooking oil, syrup, dextrose, maltodextrin, fructose, corn meal, flavourings, food additives, and sweeteners among others. Now this is a long list that forms the ingredients of thousands of food lined up on the grocery shelves which include salad dressings, confections, breads, cakes and cookies, ice-creams, and soy sauce to name a few. We have not mentioned the enzymes used in the production of cheeses and vitamins. How about honey that comes from GM plants? You can’t simply regulate and monitor the transboundary movement of bees. Mandatory labelling will require all these products to be labelled, based on a set threshold level. The threshold level for Japan is 5%, whereas in EU is 1%. This means, any products with a GM ingredient exceeding the set threshold level will have to be labelled.

Now, let us take a product that contains five GM ingredients that exceeds the set threshold level. The five ingredients have to be tracked along the supply chain at every point from the farms to mills, elevators, processing and manufacturing of the products, and ports. Not to mention all the different hands the ingredients pass through such as suppliers, traders, etc. To ensure the ingredients do not get missed up with GM products, tests must be conducted at several points. These tests are not cheap, and depending on the threshold level, the test has to be accurate using highly sensitive equipments and methods. This is a very tedious process and requires lots of testing and segregation. Farmers and manufacturers will only comply with this if consumers are willing to bear the cost by paying a premium price for non-GM ingredients. Malaysia being a small market, big producers such as the US, Canada, Brazil and Argentina might not see us as a potential market. More so, when these countries are trying hard to meet local demand in the wake of the global food crisis. Many countries are stocking up their food supply and have reduced exports.

As I always mentioned, GM technology has stood the test of time. More than 10 years have passed with no detrimental effect to human and animal safety, and the environment. It is also the most tested product in human history. Most pharmaceutical drugs are from GM technology. Have you ever wondered why these drugs are not scrutinized as much as GM food?

One of the main reasons for proposing mandatory labelling is to provide choices to consumers. Voluntary labelling can certainly address this. We even see that the reason for labelling as gone beyond safety issues. Religious reasons are also cited now. Isn’t the ‘halal’ labelling system sufficient? How would our Muslim friends determine the 'halal'ness of a product if they are informed of the teachnology used? The source of the ingredient is important to ascertain the 'halal' status and the current 'halal' regime adresses this. Then, we hear about Hindus who can’t consume beef products. So, I assume the appropriate agencies will also ensure that all products that contains beef ingredients will be labelled in the future to ease the dilemma faced by the Hindus, regardless it is GM or not, if the intention is genuine.

A strict labelling regime will be at the expense of taxpayers and consumers. It would require training of regulators, enforcement officers, lab technicians and technologists. Have are we going to regulate, enforce and monitor the traders in Malaysia, given most of our traders are SMEs? Will products sold in the night market or ‘pasar malam’ be labelled? Imagine your soybean drinks, ‘toufu fah’, and ‘tempe’ being labelled. It would be double-standard to exempt the ‘pasar malam’ traders because if safety is the valid concern, then all consumers should be protected and given the choice, not just those who go to big hypermarts.

I would be happy if resources, both financial and manpower is used for more worthy purposes such as ensuring restaurants follow strict hygiene guidelines, food manufacturers do not use banned ingredients, schools do not sell junk food, junk food peddlers are not allowed outside school compounds, smokers do not smoke in non-smoking areas, kids do not have access to cigarettes, the public do not use rivers as their garbage bins... my wish list can go on!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Que Sera, Sera, whatever will be, will be...

Ask a class of primary school students, what they want to be when they grow up and you will have more than half the class say “doctor”. Ask a class of students in the science stream in secondary school and most likely all will say “doctor”.

I still remember one particular year when there was a big hue and cry when many top students did not get a place in the local university to pursue medicine. The Prime Minister himself had to intervene and allocate places for them at various public and private universities. I wished a different approach was taken.

I always wondered the reasons for students to be so interested to become doctors. I wouldn’t mind if they are sincerely and genuinely interested to help the sick and poor. But I am not convinced. Many just want to take up medicine because of the title and it sounds glamorous. I have met students who are not interested in Biology who aspires to be doctors. I have met parents with young kids who want their children to become doctors. These parents don’t even have the patience to wait and see the inclination of their children. For all we know, the child might be so artistic that he or she wants to be an interior designer! I also know an average student who went overseas to do medicine and took almost 10 years to complete his study. I heard he is now practicing in Johor. The next time I go to Johor and fall ill, I will be careful not to end up in his clinic...

The point I want to make here is - students should be exposed to all the options that are available, career prospects and what the job entails. Most of all, parents and teachers should be aware of the child’s interest, potential and inclination. There is no point forcing someone who is weak in science and math to take up medicine. I get calls from school leavers on what is the best field for them. It just amuses me to see that only after almost 12 years at school, these students are thinking and worrying about their career path. They should have at least some idea on what would interest them, what is the job they would enjoy doing, what is their strengths and weaknesses. Parents should play a big role here. The school too should expose the students and provide career guides to them. This can be done by inviting professionals from various disciplines to give talks describing their jobs, the challenges, the requirements etc.

The other point I would like to make here is – how would Malaysia attain the developed status if all our best students only want to be doctors? Don’t we need scientists, pharmacists, laboratory technologists, engineers in various fields, food technologists, nutritionists, etc? This list is simply never ending. We aspire to have a Nobel Laureate, but there seems to be no incentives for being scientists. We lack human capital, especially knowledge workers in the area of biotechnology. How many plant breeders do we have in Malaysia? Out of this how many are rice breeders? How about analytical chemists? Molecular biologists? These are the real endangered species in Malaysia. We need more of them. Human capital is the main asset for any industry. This area needs immediate rejuvenation. Students in the science stream should be encouraged to take up various other courses besides medicine.

I always stress that biotechnology is not a stand-alone field. It is a culmination of various fields and for commercialization to take place it requires the efforts from various experts. It is akin to a complicated surgery, e.g. detaching a conjoined twins, that requires not only a paediatric surgeon but an anaesthetist, neurologist, trained nurses, and technicians. I am sure there are others who are involved as well. The same goes for any biotech research. For a GM crop to be developed, it requires molecular biologists, tissue culturist, breeders, soil scientists, plant pathologists, entomologists, ecologists, botanists, etc. The same goes to develop a drug – virologists, bacteriologists, microbiologists, mycologists, pathologists, physicians, pharmacists, toxicologists, experts in clinical trials, and a whole lot of other experts are involved. The biotech sector not only requires scientists trained in life sciences but also engineers, bioinformatics, IT, and chemistry. And not only scientists are required but also highly skilled lab technologists.

This need must be realised. How many of our science students in schools are aware of the whole gamut of disciplines in life sciences? What have the relevant authorities done to expose and counsel them on all the available options? Who is responsible – the students themselves, teachers, parents, or ministries?
The other question that often plays in my mind is - what is the ratio of scientists to population in Malaysia? How do we compare to developed countries and what are the measures taken to increase this? I am also often perplexed with the high number of ministries in this country compared to even the US. Can't we make the system more lean and efficient and plough that money elsewhere where it is more productive? Anyone with statisctics, please tell me the ratio of administrative civil servants to population in Malaysia. I don't mind the teachers, doctors, engineers, and scientists - but can't the country do with fewer civil servants at the administrative level?
-by Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

BioInformatics for Malaysia

Bio-informatics isn’t just another tool used in biotechnology research activities. It is deemed as the most important tool that is rapidly transforming the huge genomic data into useful information ranging from health care biotechnology to agriculture biotechnology. Without these tools, the abundant genomic data available becomes meaningless. Being such an important tool, it comes with no surprise that it is also the fastest evolving science in the field of biotechnology. Bioinformatics is a very complex field of study as it involves not only biology but also a strong discipline in computer science, statistics and mathematics.

The advances in this technology have initiated many start-up companies worldwide to tap into the huge amount of genomic data to create knowledge while useful applications are developed for better health and environment. One of such is the private company called 23andme providing Personal Genome Services which allows individuals to gain deeper insights into their ancestry and inherited traits. This enables individuals to discover genes that contribute to their personal characteristics. This is just one of the many companies that have benefited using bioinformatics as their platform to create successful business.

Looking at the potential contribution of this technology to the development of biotechnology in Malaysia, we have to assess our own strength, weaknesses and opportunities to enable the growth of biotechnology using bioinformatics. Just like any other discipline or field of study, availability of human capital is a must. But unfortunately developing human capital for bioinformatics is not an easy task. It’s simply because of the complexity of the subject matter that requires extensive understanding of biology as well as computational skills. What would be the best approach in becoming a bioinformatician? Should a biologist acquire computational skills or computer scientists take up biotechnology? There is no clear cut answer to this scenario but generally it appears that it’s much easier for a biotechnologist with strong analytical skills to acquire computational skills than the other way around. We do have institutes of higher learning offering bioinformatics at undergraduate and post-graduate levels but this alone is not sufficient. It’s about time we need a fully functional, dedicated and centralized Bioinformatics Institute. The closest we have is Malaysian Genome Institute (MGI) or known as GENOMalaysia which comes under MOSTI but unfortunately not many industry players are aware of the existence of the institute or the services offered by them. Besides collaborating with research institutes, MGI should open up their services extensively to private sectors in which local and foreign companies can use their services to further enhance their processes or products.

In the private sector, we can be proud of local companies providing world class bioinformatics solutions. In collaboration with Malaysian Biotechnology Corporation, Malaysian Genomics Resource Centre (MGRC) is providing ultra fast sequence analysis tools to research communities around the globe. By using a novel database platform from her parent company Synamatix, MGRC is able to provide researchers with search results in milliseconds and minutes as opposed to hours or days compared to applications built on conventional database platforms. Another homegrown bioinformatics company is Infovalley providing not only bioinformatics solutions but also medical and forensic tools to customers around the world. The existence of these world class bioinformatics players is clearly an indicator that we are in the right direction in becoming a global bioinformatics hub.

Bioinformatics is a catalyst for the growth of biotechnology and has to evolve in tandem with the latest advances in all research sectors of biotechnology. With the right exposure to the young minds, we have the capacity to nurture local bioinformatics experts to fuel the increasing demand for bioinformaticions in all biotechnology research institutes in Malaysia as well as in the region. We have all the right ingredients to transform Malaysia into a global bioinformatics hub; all we need now is concerted effort from the government and the private sector to realize this dream.

-by Joel William
(image by University of North Carolina)

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Plastic Bags or GMOs...?

Every time I buy a loaf of bread I cringe when the grocer puts it into a plastic bag before handing it to me. And I have never failed to return the plastic bag to the grocer. Yet, the next time I go to him, he too never fails to place the nicely packed bread into a plastic bag. This just doesn’t happen when we buy bread. The same scenario is repeated when we buy anything else that already comes in good packaging and can be neatly carried away. I have travelled quite a bit, but I must say, we Malaysians can beat the rest of the world flat in our consumption of plastic bags. Many countries have banned this material that do not degrade in the next hundred or thousand years and is one of the cruellest source of pollution. Data from US Environment Protection Agency shows the worldwide consumption of plastic bags in a year is between 500 billion to one trillion. It costs more to recycle plastic bags than to produce new ones. Plastic bags find their way into the ocean through sewage pipes and drains, and also when tonnes of rubbish are dumped into the ocean. These bags have been found floating north of Arctic Circle, near Spitzbergen, and as far south as the Falkland Islands.

You may wonder why I am suddenly writing about plastic bags... But this issue has made me wonder many times. Why hasn’t the government done anything to curb this problem which is disastrous to the environment? Ban the use of plastic bags? Make consumers who request for plastic bags to pay, perhaps 10 cent extra for each bag? I am sure measures can be taken to address this. Yet, much effort is spent in propagating the ‘risks’ of GMOs. Some even go to the extent of labelling it as ultra-hazardous. It is not only the case of plastic bags, how about cigarettes which is clearly linked to many diseases?

It is beyond me why the activist groups who claim to protect the environment and human health single out GMOs. I once attended a meeting related to GMOs and there was a lady from an activist group who kept pointing out how dangerous GMOs can be. During coffee break I spotted the same lady happily puffing her cigarette. She came back to the meeting and continued to bash GMOs and telling the rest we should not compromise human health and the environment. I just wondered if she knew what she was talking about. There is so much more hypocrisy practiced by opponents of GMOs worldwide which I will share in another article.

Up to 2007, 282.4 million acres worldwide have been cultivated with GM crops in 23 countries by 12 million farmers, of which 11 million farmers are from 12 developing countries. More than a decade has passed since the first commercial cultivation and consumption of GM crops and GMOs, yet no single data shows detrimental effects to human and animal safety and the environment. Farmers are typical businessmen who will only undertake practices that are profitable to them. I quote by bosses’ favourite phrase here, “You can cheat farmers once but never twice”. This is from Clive James, the author of ISAAA global status of commercialised GM crops which is the most cited source in agribiotech. Yet, we see activists who sit in posh offices across cities in Europe making decisions for resource-poor farmers. More and more farmers in the Europe want to experience the same benefits reaped by their counterparts in the US and other countries. They are pushing their governments to approve GM seeds and crops. How long will they be deprived from this technology is yet to be seen. Do we really think farmers in Africa will reject a technology that will give them more yield? Will they reject crop varieties that will thrive in marginalised land and in drought areas? Who decides for them is yet another issue.

I am sure the fund, time, manpower and other resources spent on consultations, meetings, travels and other activities related to GMOs and trying to ‘safeguard’ mankind and the environment can be better spent in many other more pertinent areas. When GMOs become the mainstream, which I strongly believe will happen soon, we will sit back and ponder how much of our resources were wasted.

Back to my argument on plastic bags, I truly hope the responsible ministry and agencies will take some serious measures to reduce its usage, production, and pollution. This will do more good to the environment than trying to curb the spread of GMOs.

-by Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

2009 National Budget

Just last month, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi unveiled the 2009 National Budget with the theme “A Caring Government” focusing on three specific strategies namely:-

1) Ensuring the Well Being of Malaysian
2) Developing Quality Human Capital; and
3) Strengthening the Nation’s Resilience.

National Budget is often one of the best indicators of the directions taken by the government to transform our country to be a developed nation. But unfortunately, the recent budget failed to carry the aspirations of our National Biotechnology Policy. Reading through the budget speech, I noticed that the biotechnology sector was hardly given any attention. Biotechnology plays a major role in all three strategies named above.

Looking at the first strategy, Biotechnology is one of the key technologies that can improve the quality of human life by leaps and bounds. Food security has been addressed quite well in the budget but unfortunately all the incentives are in the form of subsidy and tax reduction to reduce the burden of the farmers. Subsidies and tax incentives are definitely needed but may not be the best option in the long run. The government should be looking into transforming the agriculture industry into a high-tech industry by assisting the farmers to obtain the best technology for better yield and lesser use of manpower. Reduction on import duty on fertilizers and pesticides can temporarily reduce the burden of the farmers but it does not reduce their dependability on their continuous high usage of fertilizers and pesticides for better yield.

The second strategy is important to the biotechnology sector similar to the need of human capitals in other high-end industries such as electronics and ICT. As discussed in my previous post, retaining local biotech experts will be an easier task compared to luring back Malaysians in foreign countries. Reducing income tax rate by 1% may not be significant enough to retain local talents. Greater incentives in the form of higher pay and other benefits should be given to scientist similar to the incentives given to those professionals in the healthcare sector.

Looking at the third strategy, we have been consistently losing out foreign investors to neighboring countries. Investors from the west are flocking into Asia to tap into the biggest market (India & China) but unfortunately we see lesser FDI into our country compared to our neighbor’s esp. Thailand, Singapore and even Vietnam. Established foreign multinationals are definitely not looking for tax exemptions as their main criteria. The bait to bring them has to be in the form of strong human capital availability, transparent and business friendly policies and abundance of support services to enable them to sustain their businesses here. We are indeed lacking in all these areas in which the government has to play a major role in enabling a conducive environment for foreign companies to invest here.

We certainly need a biotech friendly budget to achieve the dream of our National Biotechnology Policy and 9th Malaysian Plan in transforming Malaysia into a developed nation. In year 2011, the implementation of the National Biotechnology Policy will enter the second phase which is transforming science to business. During this phase, we envisage sprouting of spin-off companies, blooming investment, knowledge-intensive job creation, technology acquisition and technology licensing, and developing of expertise in drug discovery and development. In other words, Malaysia should transform into a China or India in the next two years. Budget 2010 might be too late to address this. With the decline in growth rate in the manufacturing sector, the government should be more committed to develop the biotech industry in order to increase FDIs and GDP.
-by Joel William

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Story of the Egg: Human Capital of Biotechnology and its challenges (Part 3)

Industries are the bread and butter of science. In a pragmatic sense, what use is there for frontline, hard-edged research if there is no one to translate it into products and methods which are relevant to society? Where would the wheel be, without having it being turned into carts and cars? What use would it be for researchers to discover the perfect anti-cancer compound when it could not be available to the public? In the same line of thought, where would biotech students be, if they are not taught the skills and techniques by which they can be made relvant to the industries?

One of the reasons why I disagree with Maha on a 4-year course would be due to the fact that nothing in academia can be a substitute for the rigours of being in the industry. That is why I feel compelled to stress to students the need to take up industrial training. In my undergrad course, industrial training/interships are not compulsory, and most students feel compelled to take the summer semester as a chance to laze around at home and relax for 3 months before attending another rigorous round of academic exercise. All of this is well, except for the fact that they are probably losing out on the most important experience in their academic life, where they are still excused as students to learn the industry at a less demanding pace, but yet being able to feel the pulse of the industry and get to know further what they will be experiencing out of the ivory tower.

However, that being said, I do have to express great dissatisfaction as well to industry players who treat interns as a form of cheap labour or even hinderance. All is well if they get the chance to learn, however, some corporations guard their secrets so jealously, or are so under-equipped to support interns that students end up taking up the role of office boys and girls and do few, if any biotech related tasks. Their role here is to learn as much as they can so they can be equipped to meet the challenges of work-life. If you as the industry are not nuturing them, then whose role is it to nuture them considering that few academic courses would be able to provide even the slightest glimpse of the real conditions. Then who is to blame if we have grads who don't even understand the simple functions of the commercial line?

Here, I must laud some industry players I have met in my interviews who have be not only strongly supportive of student interns, but also are so willing to impart their skills that they end up employing them as well. My point of view is that industry players should not be shy in teaching, as they probably would end up saving on putting out employment ads on the newspaper in the end. ;) But in all due seriousness, even if they don't end up working in this field, think of it as a golden opportunity to nuture the minds of the next generation who will build up our nation's biotech industry to greater heights.

As a conclusion for my lengthy post, I shall try to summarise several key points. Firstly, student attitudes are paramount. If they are not even receptive to learn, then there is no use for discussion in the first place, and we shall see more biotech grads who don't even understand the basics of biotech. Secondly, the academic institutions should look into instilling more industry-related courses or units, as it is their responsibility for them to educate grads in the various aspects of biotech they would be facing when they exit the ivory towers. On a similar note, industries should be receptive of grads as interns and be willing to impart knowledge. I cannot stress further the importance of industrial training, and hope institutions would look into making it a compulsory measure.

With that, I pray we shall not see a repeat of fresh grads being stumped by the definition of GM.
- by K. C. Liew

Monday, August 25, 2008

The New Organic

Sorry for not updating the blog for a few days. We were extremely busy with two big events last week. Here is our new article...

The year 1996 marked a new era in agriculture. An important change swept over farms in many countries around the world with a new farming technique being adopted. The new technique allowed farmers to spray far less insecticides over their farms. In China, for example, when this technique was adopted in the beginning of 1997, cotton farmers reduced their annual use of poisonous chemicals by 156 million pounds. This is almost as much chemicals used in the entire state of California each year. Besides this benefit, there was increase in cotton yield and reduced production costs. Other positive environmental and socioeconomic impacts were also recorded – increase in the number of beneficial insects in the farm and fewer workers and family health problems from exposure to chemical pesticides.

This success story has been repeated around the world reflecting the aspirations of organic-farming advocates. But the winner in this case is not organic farming but genetic engineering or genetic modification (GM) technology. The first generation of GM crops was engineered to protect itself against insects. The plants carried a protein from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). This protein kills pests but is safe to mammals, birds, fish, and human and has been a favourite among organic farmers.

Growing population, shortage of food, increase in food price, climate change, and the need to conserve the remaining pristine wilderness are enourmous challenges that we face today. And the agriculture sector has been the biggest culprit to the eroding condition of the environment with drastic expansion of acres under cultivation, emission of green house gasses through the use of chemicals, fuel, and tilling exercise. Permanent savings in carbon dioxide emissions through reduced use of fossil-based fuels, associated with fewer insecticide and herbicide sprays was estimated to be 962 million kg in 2005. This is equivalent to reducing the number of cars on the roads by 0.43 million. Along with the reduction in the use of chemicals, come other benefits to the consumers. Our food is less tainted with chemical residues and free of fungal toxins such as aflatoxin. Aflatoxin, produced by fungi is a known cancer-causing agent and is highly toxic to human and animals and is a big problem to the feed industry. Fungi infestation occurs when crops, for example corn is attacked by insects causing injuries which become entry points to these fungus.

The organic sustainable farming methods are labour and energy intensive and they require far more land to produce the same yield. By 2050, the number of people on earth is expected to increase from the current 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion and organic farms are unable to feed the increasing population neither are they sustainable. With only 4 percent of cropland in Europe is currently being farmed organically and less than 1 percent in America, organic produce is far from market demand. Organic food also fetches higher price than its counterparts and therefore, is not affordable to everyone. In contrast, GM technology produces far higher yield and cheaper produce. The benefits of GM technology is evident with an increase of 12% in acreage in the last five years, with 114.3 million hectares planted with GM crops globally. GM crops represent 50 to 90 per cent of total crop acreage in countries where they are cultivated.

Today 70 percent of all processed foods in the United States have at least one ingredient from genetically engineered corn, cotton, canola, or soybean. Unlike the well-documented adverse effects of some pesticides, there has not been a single case of illness associated with these crops. Every year there are a few fatal cases reported in the US and Europe due to consumption of unhygienic organic vegetables, but none on GM foods. A report by the US National Academy of Sciences concluded that the process of adding genes to our food by genetic engineering is no riskier than mixing genes by conventional plant breeding. In Malaysia, we have been consuming GM soybeans and its derivates for more than a decade and no health hazards has been reported. Since all our feed for our livestock industry is imported and the bulk of it is made of corn and soybean, it is highly likely that they are GM, and that too has not posed any health problem to us. The reality is without GM feed, our livestock industry will collapse.

The remarkable success of GM crops should not be overlooked but should be considered as one of the alternatives to the current agricultural practice. It is undeniable that GM crops will play an increasingly important role in agriculture in spite of all the negative propaganda against this technology.

-by Mahaletchumy Arujanan