By Jason Loh, Head of Social, Law & Human Rights at EMIR Research.
There’s increasing public exposure these days on the potential use of bio-fertilisers, i.e., the use of natural, organic matter.
Bio-fertilisers are “natural fertilisers that contains living microorganisms (live biomass or dormant cells of effective microbial strains) which, when applied to seed, plant surfaces, or soil, colonises the rhizosphere (i.e., plant-root interface) and promotes growth by increasing the supply or availability of primary nutrients to the host plant” (Chapter 11: “Biofertilizers as substitute to commercial agrochemicals” in Agrochemicals Detection, Treatment and Remediation: Pesticides and Chemical Fertilizers).
The term, “rhizosphere” refers to “the soil zone surrounding the plant roots where the biological and chemical features of the soil are influenced by the roots” (ScienceDirect).
The use of bio-fertilisers is particularly evident in the concept of organic farming and not least in the growing awareness of the practice of composting for soil fertility (by both households, e.g.,bin and Sakura composting and enterprises, e.g., anaerobic digestion) – that is much more environmentally-friendly and sustainable at the same time.
But on an industrial scale, bio-fertilisers should be promoted as an alternative to the widespread use of chemical fertilisers in the country – not necessarily as a substitute but as a preferred choice in the development of the agricultural sector and, by extension, the burgeoning green economy of the country.
It could well be that in one fell swoop the use of bio-fertilisers would render the conventional dual-practice of deploying microbial killers together chemical fertilisers “redundant”.
In a recent article published by Malaysiakini (dated Dec’ 13, 2020), Robert Hii of the non-governmental organisation, Friends of Borneo, has called for the use of bio-fertilisers to reduce the emissions of Malaysia’s agricultural products especially since it’s readily available.
Indeed, bio-fertilisers have been in use already in Malaysia – with pioneers such as BIO AG in Pahang and SOField Agrobio Resources in Sarawak which have been helping farmers to increase yields while reducing operational costs and carbon emissions.
A specific use of bio-fertilisers is in relation to leguminous cover crops such as groundnut (Arachis hypogaea). These were used not so much to enhance soil fertility and, by extension, crop yields but to protect against any possible soil erosion and minimise water losses, especially during drought season.
However, even though this practice has a precedent, it’s not well established. There is, therefore, much scope for innovative use and improvisation of our country’s rich natural resources to produce high quality, durable and effective bio-fertilisers. Such can be drawn not least from our very own ever versatile oil palm the waste of which has potentially multi-faceted uses including as bio-fertilisers.
What’s ironic is that 90 million tonnes of empty fruit bunch (EFB) waste are generated each year. These solid wastes actually represent a vast untapped source of potential biomass/ biodegradable (i.e., rich in lignocellulosic or plant dry matter) bio-fertilisers. The empty fruit bunches (EFB) of oil palm can be recycled or “renewed” as humic (i.e., acidic) substances (that enhance nutrient absorption) pulsating with “bio-active energy” that could induce growth of high yield crops with superior qualities.
According to studies done at local universities (Universiti Sarawak Malaysia; Universiti Putra Malaysia; Universiti Teknologi Mara; Nottingham University, Malaysia Campus) deploying biomass wastes from EFB as bio-fertilisers is much more cost-effective and better than the current commercial habit of transforming these into mulch (material that covers the soil’s surface) – which in effect serves the purpose as both microbial inoculant and as substituting the role of leguminous cover crops as mentioned.
Hence, as mulch, EFB wastes do not behave as bio-fertilisers as such but merely supplement and complement the existing use of chemical fertilisers. In fact, according to an analysis in a December 2002 issue of Journal of Oil Palm Research(Vol. 14, No. 2), there is little scientific evidence in support for the beneficial use of mulch.
Furthermore, the costs of collection and transportation is very high, and disposing excess or surfeit supply which requires extensive burning (which impacts air quality) – through the “clean clearing technique.” Therefore, it’s debatable at least, that mulch is sustainable – economically and environmentally.
On the other hand, composting EFB wastes into bio-fertilisers have obvious benefits and advantages. The same studies researched at local universities as mentioned have shown pronounced and accentuated physiological and morphological growth of plants using bio-fertilisers (from EFB wastes).
These take the form of height characteristics, disease resistance, photosynthetic rate & chlorophyll contents, nutrient availability, etc. The findings demonstrate the capability of bio-fertilisers composted from EFB wastes to fulfil the needs and requirements of plant growth on a fully-orbed and holistic basis, i.e., multifunctional.
In terms of costs and technological utilisation, oil palm biomass composting is – perhaps unsurprisingly – cheap and doesn’t require sophisticated (i.e., only low-level) mechanisms. In fact, there are also various methods of composting to suit the needs of the individual enterprise.
In 2013, the Microbiology Research Group at the University Malaysia Sabah (UMS) Biotechnology Research Institute developed a simple and easy way to accelerate the composting period to within 40 days. And there’s not only potentially a huge domestic market but also overseas market such as the European Union (EU) due to the latter’s policy on organic waste management and sustainable farming practices. Bio-fertilisers can also represent additional income to oil palm and palm oil companies as they sell the excess supply to (local and foreign) counterparts that need bio-fertilisers.
What more too are the business opportunities for our SMEs – which would be enormous if they seek also to capitalise and harness the commercialisation of biomass products, specifically bio-fertilisers to be converted into eco- and bio-composite products across a range of sectors and industries. This from agriculture through to food production and furniture manufacturing. It’s time, therefore, for both the government to work closely together with players and other relevant stakeholders in the industry to ensure that the country makes full use of this potential to drive the economy forward and carve out a niche in the global markets.
Lately, beyond the palm oil industry, a concrete example could be seen in a breakthrough with the conversion of lignocellulosic fibres from discarded pineapple leaves to make strong materials for use to build the frames for unmanned aircraft or drones by researchers from Universiti Putra Malaysia (Malaysiakini, Jan’ 6, 2021). According to Professor Mohamed Thariq Hameed Sultan, “drones made out of the bio-composite material had a higher strength-to-weight ratio than those made from synthetic fibres and were also cheaper, lighter and easier to dispose of. And should the drone be damaged, the frame could be buried in the ground and would degrade within two weeks”. Not least, this project will boost the income of pineapple farmers, especially in light of the on-going economic impact of Covid-19.
The main stakeholders in raising the awareness is the government – in the form of the Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities (MPIC) and Ministry of Agriculture & Food Industry (Mafi) together with the industry players such as Sime Darby Plantation, Felda Global Ventures (FGV), and other leading plantation companies
In increasing awareness and, therefore, usage of EFB bio-fertiliser, several driving forces may be capitalised such as 1) the need to reduce fertiliser cost, 2) demand for more organic products, and 3) reduced reliance and petrochemical-based fertilisers. Unlike perennial crops, Malaysia produces millions of tons of EFBs throughout the year and this may provide a stable source of natural soil conditioner/fertiliser (notwithstanding logistical and pre-processing challenges associated with the production and supply chain) to supplement the push for the Circular Economy (“waste” as a resource) and food-security. Thus, the stakeholders may capitalise on the need to fulfil national agenda/economic initiatives as well as a potential business case to promote awareness and usage of EFB-based fertilisers.
It may also be worthwhile for the government and industry stakeholders to explore how such initiatives would improve Malaysia’s standing in relation to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and as means to improve the sustainability image of palm oil industry.
Other stakeholders should be the Ministry of Education (in including and incorporating the importance and significance of the “Circular Economy”/sustainability/sustainable development which would encompass the use of palm industry “wastes: such as EFBs as bio-fertilisers into the syllabus) and the Ministry of Higher Education in terms of teaching and research & development (R&D).
That said, the public does play an important role from the demand side to raise awareness of EFB bio-fertiliser to influence agricultural practices. The promotion of urban and home farming should spur and catalyse awareness (and demand) in this regard. Likewise, the growing and emerging awareness and popularity of organic farming and organic produce in the form of the farmers and shops or integrated supply chain such as BMS Organics would also help to promote awareness of bio-fertilisers.
Civil society and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – that are focussed on the environmental and sustainability issues such as composting – play a vital role in organising workshops and seminars together with launching campaigns and going on publicity road-shows to raise awareness.
Politicians and wakil rakyat – Members of Parliament and State Assembly members – are also in a position to create awareness and promote the widespread use of bio-fertilisers including by tabling the agenda in Parliament and state assemblies.
In the final analysis, the relatively declining importance of phosphorus, nitrogen, sulphur used as chemical fertilisers extracted during the downstream petrochemical treatment and purification process corresponding with declining supplies of hydrocarbon and petroleum stocks should boost the value and use of bio-fertilisers.
In conclusion, bio-fertilisers should be integrated into a future 4th National Agricultural Policy (NAP) for sustainable oil palm agriculture as well as agriculture as a whole including the agenda of making it more climate-change resilient and contributing to reduction in carbon emissions.