Creating A Comprehensive Biotechnology Ecosystem in Malaysia

What is Biotechnology?

The field of biotechnology is one that has received much attention over the last twenty to thirty years. Everything from the growing of genetically modified plants, to the cloning of animals, to the vast potentials of augmenting human DNA to cure diseases, have all been debated back and forth within the scientific community and the public sphere for decades now.

What exactly is biotechnology though? In essence, if a particular process requires the use of cellular organisms to synthesise a particular product or achieve a particular outcome, then it probably involves some type of biotechnology. The production of bread, which can be traced back to about 10,000 years ago, is indeed a form of biotechnology, as the process of making it involves the cultivation of yeast, which is a living, organic compound. In a very broad sense, biotechnology involves taking the very essential aspects of nature itself and putting it to use for human purposes.

The global biotech industry is massive, estimated to be worth about USD 1,023.92 billion in 2021 and is only set to grow further over the next few years. The applications afforded by the technology are wide and multifarious, ranging from everything from better medicines, to fuel, to better production capabilities for agricultural products. Biodiesels and biogas have been developed as alternatives to fossil fuels, genetically modified crops assist in improving the yield and quality of crops, and perhaps more significantly with regards to our recent bout with the Covid pandemic, it also essential for creating better medicines and vaccines.

With the potentials afforded by biotechnology being so promising, the Malaysian government recently proposed to reinvigorate its approach towards fostering a better climate in the country for the cultivation and adoption of biotech-based practices, in the form of a Malaysian Biotechnology Policy 2.0. The policy, which, is a follow up to a previously proposed 2005 biotech policy, is intended to address the needs of the nation with regards to biotechnology approaches and adoption, identifying key areas and strategic thrusts with regards to education, research and private sector initiatives approaching 2030.

Massive Potentials in Food Security and Industrial Sustainability

The medicinal benefits afforded by biotechnology are indeed significant, as we have seen with in the recent pandemic in which vaccines needed to be created rapidly to curb the outbreak. Biotechnology did indeed play a significant part in this process. However, the promise that the technology holds with regards to food security and industrial processes are equally significant and certainly worth further attention and investment.

Genetically modified crops have been a point of contention within the scientific community for some time now. Crops can be genetically altered to become resistant towards certain pests and herbicides, drastically improving yields and enhancing productivity. With the growing number of undernourished people in the world set breach the 800 million mark and access to food proper food supplies becoming increasingly sparce, the need for a truly dependable and resilient food supply chain is more important than ever. Golden rice, for instance, is a genetically modified form of rice which contains beta-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin-A. This product was created to meet the needs of heavily undernourished communities in Africa and South-East Africa that were in dire need of sustainable and nutrient rich food supplies. While it has proven to be effective in parts, more research is needed to ensure that the production process is as refined as possible and that it can be produced in the quantities that are needed.

Food security aside, biotechnology also holds vast potential within the realm of industrial processes and in the facilitation of a circular economy. The principles of the circular economy have received much attention in recent years as industries attempt to find ways and means of generating energy and producing goods with a minimal impact on the climate. In a circular economy, resources are maximized to the utmost potential and waste is kept to a minimum at every point in the lifecycle of a product, ensuring processes are sustainable and the carbon footprint is kept as low as possible.

There are several approaches that have been looked into with regards to the circular economy potentials thus far, largely based around the concept of renewable materials and waste management practices. The use of renewable resources such as biomass, sugars or sunlight are being looked into as replacements for non-renewables like fossil-based coal or crude oil. Through biotechnological methods, the creation of new materials which are less resource stressful, and more biodegradable become available. Thinner, lighter packages that require fewer materials can be created and are in fact are currently being developed by international companies such as Avantium and DuPont.

Biotechnology also plays a major role in waste management practices, in which biological materials are used as degraders which break down waste into a simpler form and remove contaminants which may be contained in them. This can be done for wastewater treatment, gas treatment, and the disposal of solid waste materials, with such approaches proving greater viability with regards to better waste management practices, which is ultimately better for the environment.

The Malaysian Biotechnology Ecosystem

With the benefits brought about by biotechnological innovations being so promising, initiatives have been put in place by the Malaysian government to create a more encouraging ecosystem in Malaysia to allow the industry to grow and thrive. An announcement was made in 2022 for a new National Biotechnology Plan 2.0 that would leverage on biotechnology strengths to support the country in achieving a high technology status by 2030, with the focus being on agriculture and food security, healthcare and wellbeing, as well as the industrial and circular economy.

The National Biotechnology Plan 2.0 highlights the present status of the Malaysian biotechnology ecosystem and points to opportunities that are available for the adoption of further technological improvement and development in key areas, highlighting five areas that need to be addressed by the policy framework. The first of these is to support the nations competitiveness through technology and innovation driven growth. The second is to contribute to wealth generation and the welfare of citizens.

A third goal is to align the national biotechnology policy with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which includes the goal of achieving zero hunger, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, sustainable cities and communities, as well as responsible consumption and production methods. It also mentions the need to strengthen the security of the country’s independence in strategic sectors such as food, energy, and healthcare, using advanced biotechnology. Finally, it suggests the need to empower social innovations in biotech for socioeconomic development.

The policy also puts forwards several specific targets that are to be aimed at to realise the above-mentioned goals. The creation of three bio-innovations unicorns in the form of BioNexus organizations which are eligible for STI tax incentives is the first of these. The BioNexus status is awarded to qualified international and Malaysian biotechnological companies, providing fiscal incentives, grants and other guarantees to assist growth.

This is to be followed by an initiative to nurture 30% of the BioNexus companies towards achieving a global status with the remainder 70% being towards towards initiatives at the local level. Next is for the development of world-class biotechnology institutes in terms of research and publishing, scientific study, and high-tech platforms across the country. The policy also outlines the target of achieving a 5% contribution towards GDP by the biotechnology sector. A final target is for 80% of biotechnology graduates to be recognized through micro-accreditation programs and 20% of biotechnology graduates to pursue master’s degrees in specializing in biotechnology.

The policy goes on to highlight the specific approaches that are to be taken in each of the designated areas of food security, medicine and the industrial sector, in order to better promote biotechnology adoption and utilization in the country.

In terms of food security, the policy aims to create sustainable production systems for food security that take advantage of the country’s rich biodiversity resources using advanced technology. It aims to make use of biotechnology processes to improve livestock breeding, marine species cultivation, and the growth of plants and forested areas.

Another aim of the policy is to make better use of natural resources in a more sustainable way, particularly with regards to biotech farm inputs, livestock, and high value marine based foods. It also puts forward the need to develop 4IR technologies driven by molecular bioscience for the creation of smart hatchery systems and offshore aquaculture.

A further consideration that is addressed by the policy is the need for the creation of a forward-looking food ecosystem that utilizes the most up to date and relevant technologies. Insect farming and cellular agriculture for artificial meat production are areas which are pointed to here.

In term of the medicine and healthcare sector, the policy highlights the need to make use of botanical medicines and high value natural ingredients to promote better health and wellness. It mentions the need to develop a formulation of natural ingredients for the purpose of evidence-based therapeutics. Efforts are aimed to be put in place for discovering natural compounds through technology computing and artificial intelligence for the development of new therapeutics. It also mentions the need to make use of biologics and omics technologies for targeted therapies which improve health through gene and cell therapy.

With regards to the industrial sector and the need to create a circular economy, the policy suggests that new microbes and enzymes should be cultivated for biofuel production, bioremediation, and biochemistry. It also puts forward the need to for greater integration of biology into industrial processes through concepts designed to produce advanced biomaterials for the purpose of bio fabrication and bioproduction for the next generation. The need to create a strong chain ecosystem to encourage circular economy adoption with regards to the production and consumption of bio-based products is also mentioned.

In summation, the policy is essentially aimed at creating a more supportive ecosystem to allow for biotechnological innovations and technologies to be cultivated and to reach consumers and society at large. This will be achieved by improving education facilities and platforms which encourage the pursuit of biotechnology studies and learning, by improving support to the local scientific community to carry out the necessary research and studies required to improve biotech innovations developments, and to support the local business community in forming biotech based companies which develop products and solutions that improve the performance and sustainability of practices within designated industries, such as that of agriculture, medicine and the industrial sector.

Conclusion

The importance of the biotechnology industry therefore cannot be overstated. The benefits that it affords by way of improving our agricultural practices and creating greater crop yields, of creating better and more effective medicinal treatments which cure diseases, and of improving industrial processes to be more sustainable are vital and should be utilized to the full extent to create better opportunities for society at large.

Moving forwards, as Malaysia adopts policies which integrate biotechnological processes into educational, scientific and corporate initiatives, the possibilities that this novel technological approach affords will only continue to strengthen our goals towards becoming a high-technology nation by the year 2022, on equal footing with countries like China and Singapore.

With more concerted efforts put into the research of biotechnological potentials, we could very well see truly sophisticated technological developments such as that of smart materials in the form of self-healing concrete, plants that change color when explosives are detected, as well as clothing and footwear made using synthetic spider webs, become available to industries and consumers alike.

The future of biotechnology is bright, and the Malaysian Biotechnology Plan 2.0 is a hopeful, scientifically grounded step towards ensuring that we meet our long terms goals of better environmental practices, long term food security and sustainable economic growth here in the Malaysia as we progress together towards a better 2030.

27 Group is a business consultancy and advisory organisation geared towards project development and socioeconomic transformation strengths. We provide project management and master planning services for clients within multiple industries and are also keenly involved in the development of socioeconomic initiatives within the public sector. Our guiding ethos of ‘Rebuilding Humanity’ drives us to deliver transformative projects with the right amount of care and attention, meeting both stakeholder expectations and the essential needs of the wider communities that we serve.

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