Biotech and the science of tapai-making

June 13, 2008 at 6:24 pm Leave a comment

DATUK Dr Jamaludin Jarjis is trying hard to make Malaysians understand what biotechnology is all about.

And he wants to use tapai, the country’s age-old fermented rice recipe, as an example when he explains the concept to his constituents in Rompin. The Science, Technology and Innovation Minister, who was at the Bio 2004 Convention in San Francisco last week, must have been so overwhelmed by the complexities of modern biotechnology that he is worried that it simply will not catch on where it matters — in the villages and jungle fringes where natural resources are in abundance.

“Let’s demystify biotech,” he kept on saying to people around him while in San Francisco.This is probably where tapai comes in. The classic Malay food is a by-product of biotechnology of sorts since its preparation involves the use of yeast to ferment glutinous rice — just as in the early days of biotech when yeast was also used to ferment beer and leaven bread in Egypt in 4,000BC.

It is biotech since it makes use of living cells and living particles to solve problems or make useful products. In the case of tapai-making, yeast is a living fungus and it is used to modify food, which is glutinous rice.Or how about tongkat ali? Because this wild root too can be used as an ingredient in pharmaceutical products to enhance vitality.

Jamaludin, or Datuk JJ as he is more popularly known, and everybody else in his ministry must be wishing that biotech is as simple as that. But it is too complicated to the non-discerning— even if Biotech for Dummies or Biotech Made Easy books are available in the market.And no matter what scientists say, biotechnology must be one of the most boring subjects to talk about to a mass audience. Laymen who were at the San Francisco convention should know.

Besides being highly technical, the subject is so dull and dreary, perhaps only fractionally more interesting than rocket science. Or watching grass grow.What do you expect when you are all the time fed with terms you didn’t even know existed, like genome, abzymes, ribozymes and retinoblastomas? But somehow we all know the importance. Biotech has been hailed as the new engine of growth and some predict that it could even be bigger than the information and communication technology revolution that crept in in a big way several years ago and changed our lives.

That’s why Jamaludin is taking it as a challenge to make this concept more appealing to the masses, especially since the country, being abundantly blessed with the potential, is directly in the path of the biotech gale.”I want to be able to go back to my constituency in Rompin and talk about biotechnology in a language everyone understands because this science is all around us,” he says.

An engineer by training, Jamaludin reckons he has to use simple yet far-reaching examples if he ever wants to break new ground in his biotech-for-all campaign. And food is close to the hearts of most peopole.The economic opportunities provided by biotech are said to be enormous — more so over the last 10 to 15 years with the progress made in information and communication technology that has opened the way for new discoveries and new drugs to treat killer diseases like cancer, AIDS and hypertension.

Jamaludin believes Malaysia can tap into its resources and available infrastructure to make vast inroads in this field and bring great economic gains to the country. Providing clinical trial facilities to research conducted by big firms is one. Another is making use of its natural resources, especially those found in the richness of the forests where all kinds of herbs and plants with medicinal value can be found.

Hempedu beruang (thottea), for instance is much sought after for its intrinsic medicinal value, especially for the treatment of skin diseases. A joint research project is being carried out at Berkeley University in California on this plant and this alone brings enormous benefit to Malaysia as it also exposes Malaysian scientists to research and development methods carried out in well-equipped and established surroundings. Of course, the bottomline is economics since several countries in the region, especially Singapore and India, are going at full stride to develop their biotech industries which are said to be bringing them revenue of up to US$10 billion (RM38 billion) a year.

The demystification of biotech is also necessary to make people less apprehensive of things like genetically-modified food or “frankenstein food” that put many people off.A university professor says the so-called environmental activists hold protests about biotech products simply because they don’t understand what it is all about. “All they think is that food is now being produced in labs and these are unsafe.”They don’t realise that some of the raw vegetables from the farms that they eat contain a high residue of pesticides and that biotech has somehow come up with a process to overcome this problem relating to pesticide poisoning,” he says.

He gives examples: Worldwide biotech crop acreage has risen 15 per cent to hit 167.2 million acres in 18 countries. Brazil and the Philippines grew biotech crops for the first time last year. Also, Indonesia allows consumption of imported biotech foods and China and Uganda accept biotech crop imports.The United Kingdom has also approved its first commercial biotech crop in eight years. The crop is a biotech herbicide-resistant corn used for cattle feed.The US Environmental Protection Agency has also approved the first transgenic rootworm-resistant corn, which may save farmers US$1 billion annually in crop losses and pesticide use.

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