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Datuk Dr. Sharif Haron

MALAYSIA - Agriculture

Waste Not Want Not

Director General, MARDI

Bio

Datuk Dr. Sharif Haron has 32 years of working experience and was appointed to the position of Director General of Mardi in 2013. Prior to this, he served as deputy DG for eight years, and in progressive roles in various research departments, amongst others as head of research program at the Livestock Research Centre. He studied Veterinary Medicine and Surgery at University Putra Malaya (UPM) and holds a PhD in Reproductive Biotechnology from University College Dublin. He is member of several international bodies in the field of agricultural research; he is Country Permanent Member to the Council for Partnership in Rice Research in Asia (CORRA), Council Member to International Society for Horticultural Science (ISHS), and Country Member to the Asia Pacific Association of Agriculture Research Institutions (APAARI). Similarly, he chairs various national councils in this field, on agriculture, fruit diversity and research. He is adjunct professor at his alma mater, UPM.

“15,000 tons of cooked food is wasted per day in Malaysia, of which 3,000 tons can in fact be consumed.“

One of your initiatives focuses on limiting food loss and food waste. What do you think can be achieved here?

The MySaveFood Initiative was launched in March 2016 by the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister of Agriculture and Agro-based Industries, and the Director General of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of United Nations, Dr. José Graziano da Silva. It features two components, first of all to raise awareness of food loss and wastage and secondly to build a network and link between the government, NGOs, and industry that can drive the force of this initiative by itself. The message that we wish to convey to everyone is to value food and not waste as it takes a lot of resources, energy, and time to put food on the table. Lack of concern for food loss and waste across the value chain can have detrimental effects to our food security, environment, health, and economy. Thus far, the initiative has picked up momentum and the Malaysian community is in agreement that food loss and waste should be reduced. Food loss is not commonly seen by consumers because it occurs along the food chain from harvesting and transportation to milling and storing. The figures are quite disturbing. For example, around 28.5% of rice is lost in a year in Malaysia. In total, one-third of our total harvest is lost before it reaches the dinner table—a figure that is average for our region, but high compared to developed countries. The figures for food waste are also staggering. The MYSaveFood partner Solid Waste And Public Cleansing Management Corporation (SWCorp) conducted a study and found that 15,000 tons of cooked food is wasted per day in Malaysia, of which 3,000 tons can in fact be consumed. We are happy that the NGOs partners have made efforts to collect almost-expired products from supermarkets to be redistributed to the needy. Again, our initiative aims to target the source of the waste and loss, ignite a network of organizations that support this objective, and educate the private sector on their responsibilities as well. MARDI specifically has many roles in this initiative. We not only develop technologies to reduce post-harvest losses, but we are also developing composting technologies to help reduce the amount of food waste reaching the landfills. Promoting healthy meal portions can also reduce food waste, hence MARDI has introduced Nutrima “Bento Box” meals to help curb food waste in its campus.

You have been outspoken about fruit diversity, for environmental as well as commercial reasons. Can you tell us more about your plans to enhance diversity here?

Fruit diversity is an exclusive value of this region and is important for the future. It is also something that can be utilized and monetized. Some fruits have commercial value but some have other traits that need to be conserved and utilized. For example, the exotic king of the fruits, durian, has a unique and indigenous flavor only to be found naturally here in this region. Malaysia is already known as a major producer of durian. However, it is a seasonal fruit and, therefore, it is quite challenging to commercialize. This is the same for many other Malaysian fruits. Hence, MARDI has programs to look at fruit diversity and rare fruits. We have collected around 40 different types of rare fruits to evaluate, characterize, and potentially monetize. We also explore the possibility of using these fruits for other purposes. Most of these fruits have unique characteristics compared to more common fruits, for example, high levels of antioxidants. Since our research is always two-fold; which is to focus on producing public goods as well as for wealth creation, MARDI utilizes fruit diversity to develop nutritious products for wellness purposes. One example is tapping the global wellness market which is a trillion dollar business with products containing anti-aging citrus and tropical fruits rich in antioxidants.

Do you coordinate with universities and other institutes and companies to conduct this research?

We have built up a great web of network of local and international entities. Academics can conduct most of the fundamental sciences while we do the applied sciences, and in that sense we complement each other. We are mostly interested in products, the production process, and the commercialization of our research. Internationally, we collaborate through a number of sectoral and branch-specific partnerships, which among others include the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Asia Pacific Association of Research Institutes (APAARI), the Institute of Rice Research (IRRI), the Council for Rice Research in Asia (CORRA), the Food and Fertilizer Technology Centre (FFTC), and The World Vegetable Centre (AVRDC). We are also active in collaborating with many institutions across the regions and are active contributors to many ASEAN and APEC programs. These not only present test cases for our own ideas but also identify global trends in the industry. We also collaborate with international companies such as Nestle and BASF to ensure our products not only benefit our nation but are able to penetrate world markets as well.

How should rice production in Malaysia innovate?

As a staple food of Malaysia, it is of great importance to sustain the rice industry. However, rice is a challenging industry for Malaysia by virtue of its high cost of production compared to the current world price. Over the years, MARDI has developed more than 40 rice varieties, and they are planted in more than 90% of Malaysian granary areas. However, with climate change and new types of pests and diseases, it is always recommended to cultivate new varieties to combat disease and have resistant yields. Flavored and colored rice are other products that we look into, especially since colored rice has many health benefits. We launched a program called Eat a Rainbow, for which we currently promote eating colored agriculture produce including red and black rice. As a rule of thumb, a diet comprising seven colors a day keeps the doctor away; therefore, it is part of a nutritious diet to introduce more colors into one’s diet. Colored food has anthocyanins, which is important to combat cancer. This fits with the growing trend in urban centers in which people opt for a few spoonfuls of quality rice rather than a bowl of lower-quality rice.

What are your ambitions for the years ahead?

Leveraging the success of the MySaveFood initiative, we wish to create new boundaries and make more positive impacts to the country’s agriculture industry. There are many other initiatives we are working on but one global trend we are looking into at the moment is superfoods, which has attracted a great deal of attention. For example, we have developed honey from stingless bees or “kelulut” and seek to commercialize this unique product. This honey has quite a different composition and has at least four to 10 times the amount of antioxidants and a lower percentage of reducing sugar compared to commercial honey. It has great health benefits and can treat ulcers or be applied to skin as well. We launched this product under our new brand and packaging — Nutrima by MARDI. We pledge to also continue focusing on developing public goods and technologies while understanding challenges to our agricultural industry such as climate change. This includes promoting new varieties and new agricultural practices to respond to higher temperatures, drought, or flooding in certain areas. Mechanization is the way forward in our industry as a whole, and we need to extend more effort into precision farming in order to import less labor. One challenge, which is an issue for the R&D sector in general, is visibility. We have to increase the visibility of MARDI so that the nation is aware and can utilize our many outputs developed over the years. To do this, commercialization of our research findings is now among one of our most important agenda. We have developed the MARDI logo as a symbol for quality innovation, and products which carry the MARDI logo will be automatically recognized as a high quality and reliable agriculture product. This is the way we create greater visibility amongst consumers and we hope this will encourage many young ‘agri-preneurs’ to venture into agriculture, materialize their ideas, and use our branding.

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