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