TBY talks to Datuk Dr. Sharif Haron, Director General of Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI), on fruit diversity, working with universities, and innovation in domestic rice production.

Datuk Dr. Sharif Haron
Datuk Dr. Sharif Haron has 32 years of working experience and was appointed to the position of Director General in 2013. Prior to this, he served as Deputy Director General 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 a member of several international bodies in the field of agricultural research. He also chairs various national councils in this field, on agriculture, fruit diversity, and research. He is adjunct professor at his alma mater, UPM.

You have been outspoken about fruit diversity, for environmental as well as commercial reasons. What are 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 that is only 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.

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

We have built up a great network of local and international entities. Academia conducts most of the fundamental sciences while we do the applied sciences—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 with a number of sectorial and branch-specific partnerships, amongst others with 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 collaborating with many institutions across the region 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.

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 emerging 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 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 for combating cancer.

What are your ambitions for the years ahead?

Leveraging from 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 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.