Crops For the Future: A Better Future Through Agriculture

Modern supercrops will be a huge contribution to humanity, but agriculture cannot be fixed by biotechnology alone. How can science and technology resolve the matter? One of the greatest challenges of the century for researchers is to answer this question as climate change and population growth continue to make life more restrained for conservative farmers in today’s developing era. For the majority of the 20th century, humanity managed to maintain and sustain the ratio of food supply to population growth. But will the nation be able to maintain the lead in the 21st century, or will calamity befall us all? What changes will today’s development bring about for the life of today and the next generation? As quoted in the movie Interstellar (2014), “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down, and worry about our place in the dirt”, a powerful quote that  is beautiful to think on when wondering the transformation of the world  through rapid advances in sciences and technology that are affecting every aspect of human lives, dreams and ambitions. Take a look around to see just how much can change in a relatively short space of time.

Which brings us to the Crops For  the Future  (CFF) We had been privileged enough to be given the opportunity to talk to Ms. Zuraida Zainal Abidin and Mr. Steven Tan and get an exclusive tour around the CFF. They briefed us on the history of the CFF and were more than willing to explain to us the work that is going on within their perimeter.

An inside view

CFF is the world’s first centre that is focusing on underutilised crops for both food and non-food uses. The term ‘underutilised’ is used to refer to the categories of cultivated plants and it is commonly applied to potentially surviving species that has not been fully realized. CFF encompass annual and perennial crops with potential as staple foods, fruits and vegetables, bioenergy. They make a crystal clear definition of promoting a better use of underutilized crops and agricultural biodiversity to deal with problems of poverty, food, nutritional security, income well-being and environmental health. CFF provides evidence-based research to promote and facilitate a greater use of neglected and under-utilised species for food and non-food uses.

With established partnerships with organizations around the world, CFF will link across the whole value chain called ‘Research Value Chain (RVC)’. All CFF research programmes transition along the typical agricultural supply chain from sowing and management of crops to their harvesting, transport, processing, marketing and consumers. They provide ‘proof-of-concept’ learning experiences and research platforms from a wide scope of underutilised crops for PhD students and interns This spawns five different yet related research themes, which in stairwise order are: Biotechnology and Crop Genetics; Breeding and Agronomy; Agrometeorology and Ecophysiology; Nutrition and Bioproducts; and Social, Economic and Policy.

Crops For the Future was established in 2011 and it is a company limited by guarantee and without share capital. Its guarantors are the Government of Malaysia and the University of Nottingham in Malaysia. While most national governments acknowledge the actions and effort of CFF, the Malaysian government is the first to ever provide the infrastructure and funding to support it. This is because Malaysia has aspirations to use the focus on research and development as a stepping stone for the innovation of production processes.

 

Inside a dome

CFF headquarters can easily be recognised by its 3 three iconic domes, each of which houses the Central Administration and Visitor Centre, Research Support, and the Laboratories respectively. The laboratories are world-class plant biotechnology laboratories, controlled-environment rooms, processing and sensory suites and related equipment. Through a collaboration with Jabatan Kerja Raya (JKR) Malaysia and Malaysian Timber Industrial Board (MTIB), it was decided that the main support of the domes would be structured using glulam. Glulam is made from unwanted offcut timber that were treated and glued together under stringent manufacturing conditions. The glulam used for CFF was made from hardwood, curved into the shape of a dome. It has a very high tensile strength despite its size and is termite and fire resistant. The glulam is expected to last a lifetime (which is approximately 100 years), though should it be dismantled before its time, it could be recycled into furniture or biomass. The beams were made into a curved shape to allow the installations of the light deflectors (those panels that greatly resemble window blinds). As a result, enough natural light to pass through while deflecting some of the heat from the sun. The perforated deflectors allows wind to enter and ventilate the buildings. This smart design allows the buildings to stay nice and cool even under the afternoon sun. Not to mention, this design also complies with the Green Building Initiative (GBI), which awarded CFF a silver rating under the design assessment.

The flagship of the laboratory dome is the Conviron Environment Control Chambers. There are 20 units in total in which it can control CO2, heat, light and humidity. At the moment, the laboratories are in the testing and commissioning stage. It is expected to be complete by 30 December 2015. CFF also incorporated their plants into the design of the building. The walkways have creeper plants to block out the sun. There are also indoor botanical gardens; the first being the spices and scent garden and the second is the forest and fruits garden. The gardens have many types of plants, from chocolate mint herb (yes, this is the name of the plant) to wild bananas. The plants grown in these gardens were mostly taken from nearby hills or donated by other NGOs, such as Suriana Botanic Conservation Gardens and the Free Tree Society. All the plants are grown organically, that is to say, with organic fertilizers and no pesticides. Rain water irrigates the plants, and excess water is gathered around the domes to be channeled into a lake which will be used for research on fish.

One of the interior gardens

What CFF hopes to achieve is to bring out the potential of under-utilised crops to create a sustainable agriculture system. From there, they aim to cultivate these underutilised crops to provide an alternative food source for human sustenance and to provide new materials for biomaterials use in the future. Through diligent research, they aim to enhance the nutrition intake in society as well as to provide crops and cropping systems that are able to survive the changes in climate in the future. Their main priorities are; to enhance knowledge, provide sustainable nutrition and to create high value agriculture.

As an independent research centre, CFF have sufficient access to facilities and expertise at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia, UK and China as well as other universities around the world. CFF is also affiliated in operational links with other partners particularly in Africa and Asia. Ease of access to local scientists and institutions creates a greater potential for Malaysia to be a pioneer in R&D and marketing of underutilised crops. It is also noteworthy that over 50 Memorandum of Understandings was agreed between CFF and various global and Malaysian partners.

 

By Siti Safiah & Yeap Zhi Xin

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