Malaysia: From rainforest to market

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The early September announcement that Malaysia is home to some 6000 species of herbs, all of which could have commercial value, has refocused attention on the possibility of a brand-new industry for the South-east Asian nation.

On September 3 Forestry Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) announced it has been studying some 20 species of medicinal and aromatic plants from among the 6000 total, from which beauty and fragrance products may soon be developed.

“With the latest technology, it is not impossible for us to unlock the vast potential in our rainforest to propel Malaysia to high-income status,” said the director-general of FRIM, Abdul Latif Mohmod, speaking to the official press outlet Bernama.

Abdul Latif said FRIM found that the extracts, or chemical compounds from the species analysed, had anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-microbial and bio-pesticide properties. Among the herbs being researched are kaffir lime, turmeric, lempoyang, kemoyang, serai wangi, selasih, jangkang and gaharu.

Based on FRIM’s research findings, testing is under way to determine if the herbs can be developed as wellness and cosmetic products, according to Abdul Latif. He noted that more than 30 new herbal products have already been manufactured and are now being marketed in cooperation with pharmaceuticals companies.

In a prime example of the herbal industry’s massive potential, Abdul Latif said gaharu essence is in high demand, with very small quantities selling for thousands of ringgit.

The FRIM is home to a herbal technology centre that certifies manufacturing practices to assist companies in realising the commercial value of local herbal products.

The research programme is in line with the government’s aspiration to establish herbal and health care industries in Malaysia, as outlined in the National Biotechnology Policy.

The policy envisions the field as a new economic engine for Malaysia. It sets out to transform and enhance the value creation of the agricultural sector and develop industrial biotechnology. It also aims to nurture an environment conducive to industry, as well as research and development, while also leveraging the country’s existing areas of strength – with the discovery of these herbs’ properties a prime example of such comparative advantages.

The policy is currently in the second of three phases. In Phase I (2005-10), the focus was on capacity building, the establishment of the Malaysian Biotech Corporation (MBC) and advisory and implementation councils, educating and training knowledge workers and developing legal and intellectual property frameworks.

The current stage, Phase II, runs from 2010 to 2015 and is themed “Science to Business”. It is aimed at boosting the biotechnology sector, as well as emphasising business aspects, such as developing expertise in drug discovery and development based on natural resources, new product development and technology acquisition and licensing. In the policy’s final phase (2016-20) the results from the first two phases will be leveraged to help local biotech companies achieve international status.

FRIM’s discovery also coincides with the proposed designation of 2012 as the “Year of Science”. In a proposal by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, the government has been requested to make the declaration in an effort to inspire awareness of science, technology and innovation among Malaysians.

Maximus Ongkili, Malaysia’ minister of science, technology and innovation, said he believes the designation will allow his ministry to strengthen existing institutional structures.

“This includes integrating the existing biotechnology research institutes and establishing the National Science Research Council (NSRC) and the Malaysian Board of Technologists (MBOT),” he said recently.

If the proposal goes forward, the NSRC will be tasked with providing strategic direction and setting priorities for national research and development, while the MBOT will serve as the accreditation institution for professional technologists. Meanwhile, the ministry will be working closely with the Malaysian Innovation Agency in marketing the research’s results.

Maximus said his ministry would intensify efforts in science and technology developments and its applications this year, which also marks the start of the 10th Malaysia Plan (10MP), adding that biotechnology would remain a top priority.

“We have been championing scientific discovery and transforming innovation to achieve a knowledge-based society for sustainable development through research, planning, funding and commercialisation. We will intensify these efforts under the 10MP starting this year,” Maximus said.

Developing the country’s agricultural sector is one of the National Key Economic Areas (NKEAs) under the 10MP. The plan’s NKEA 11 deals with developing high-value agriculture, including herbs and spices, for which there is growing demand and which provide increased income for farmers.

During the 10MP period, these high-value agriculture activities will be given special focus, and could lead to a GDP contribution increase of 1-2% by 2015. With 6000 species of herbs that can be developed already growing in its rainforests, a 1% jump may be just the beginning of a whole new green market for Malaysia.

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