Farmers have always found various ways to improve the yields of their crops. It could have been new seed varieties, planting methods, timing, irrigation, pest and disease control and plant nutrients. The use of biological products in agriculture were before the discoveries and use of chemical inputs. These chemical products brought great advancements to agriculture. However, the over-use of polluting chemical products in the last few decades has prompted a new focus on sustainable agriculture. In Malaysia, organic farming is one of the ways towards a safer sustainable agriculture and to increase farmers’ productivity and profits. Organic farming includes the use of biological products like biofertilizers, biostimulants and biopesticides. These biological products have additional features to help improve soil quality, make more nutrients available, increase crop metabolism and provide anti-stress protection for crops. This will result in better quality produce with higher crops yields and increased income for farmers. This overview presents the current market situation and trends in the use of biological products in Malaysia.
Key words: Sustainable agriculture, BioFertilizers, BioStimulants, BioPesticides, Malaysia
Agriculture crop farming in Malaysia is an important economic segment which forms about 8% of the country’s GDP and around 10% of the total workforce (Rozhan, 2022). The climate in Malaysia is tropical with rains almost all year round. Industrial crops like rubber, cocoa and oil palm take up to 7.2 million ha (89%) of the 8.1 million ha planted area (DOSM, 2022). Food crops like rice, fruits and vegetables take up 0.9 million ha. There is 70% self-sufficiency for rice and fruits in Malaysia but self-sufficiency level for vegetables is a low 40% (Rozhan, 2022). The Malaysian government views food security and food safety with great importance and there is an eye on imported inflation as well.
As the present population is more knowledgeable and affluent, there is a growing need to meet quality and safe food standards resulting in an increasing demand for commercial farming to satisfy market needs (Tijjani and Khairulmazmi, 2021). While commercial organic farming is meeting the needs of a health and environment conscious affluent population, the area organically farmed is still very low, with 457 ha organically certified myOrganic by Malaysia’s Department of Agriculture in 2022 (DOA a, 2022). There are huge yield differences between conventional farming and organic farming with conventional farming producing between 25% and 30% higher yields than organic farming (Alvarez, 2022). This large conventional-organic yield gap is attributed to the abiotic (water and nutrient) stresses and the biotic (pests and diseases) stresses experienced in organic farming. There is also the issue of cropping inconsistency as crop rotation on the farm land as practiced in organic farming could cause supply disruptions. This break in supply could affect the drive to higher consumer demands. It is also inherent in organic farming that the employment of labour would be more intensive as compared to conventional farming. Accepted tasks of controlling pests and diseases as practiced in conventional farming does not work in organic farming. All these factors do contribute to a significantly lower productivity and higher costs of production of organic farms. Hence, the organic produce in the market could be priced as high as 30%-500% premium above conventional food prices (Illani et al. 2022).
In order to overcome issues of lower yields, inconsistent supplies, labour use, and pests and diseases control, organic farmers are on the lookout for biological products that are organically acceptable and at the same time, able to overcome issues caused by abiotic and biotic stresses, water and nutrient supply and ease of use for farm workers. There is a noticeable trend of new and more biological products in the market that are targeted to reduce chemical pollution on the environment and to increase the productivity of farms. At the same time, conventional food farmers are also using biological products to supplement and optimize the efficiency of fertilizers applied. There are benefits to be extracted in unlocking the full nutrient potential in soils and fertilizers. It is also essential that beneficials like pollinators, natural pest enemies, nitrogen-fixing microorganisms and other soil enhancers are safe and enhanced by biological products. The use of biological products are definitely an integral part of Good Agricultural Practices, Integrated Crop Management and Integrated Pest Management. The drive is towards a sustainable safer environment and at the same time, to increase farmers’ productivity and profits. This applies to organic farming as well as conventional farming.
Biological products are biologically based products and are more sustainable alternatives to conventional farming products as they reduce or eliminate chemical contamination in food and the environment while increasing the yield productivity of the farms by improving soil and plant health (Dunham and Dunham, 2015).
In order to further understand the available biological products, they can be categorized as:
- Biostimulants; and
These products could be microbial based products or plant/seaweed extracts mixed with nutrients. Biofertilizers improve the nutrient absorption and translocation by plants. This is achieved by the improved rooting, healthier rhizosphere and assisted movement of nutrients into crops (Aseri et al., 2008). Microbial products are mostly mycorrhizal fungus and nitrogen fixing bacteria. Rhizosphere health involves the proliferation of microorganisms in soil surrounding the roots to effect plant root respiration, and the efficient nutrient and water absorption (Soumare et al., 2015). The plant and/or seaweed extracts will stimulate the growth and proliferation of soil or crop microorganisms to ensure a healthy rhizosphere. There are also natural chelates and ligands in the extracts that assist in absorption and movement of nutrients from soil to crop (Gaurab, 2020; Nitu et al., 2020). The addition of nutrients into some commercial mixtures ensures that the nutrients are more readily available at the time of application.
These are soil conditioners and crop stimulants. Soil conditioners help promote water retention, hold soil particles together, improves Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) which increase nutrient availability and provide hormone-like stimulation. Animal wastes are a common form of soil conditioners but they may not be considered hygienic. However, there are available cleaner and more efficient soil conditioners like organic acids. Examples are amino acids, fulvic acid and humic acid. The other key feature of biostimulants is abiotic and biotic management (Yakhin et al, 2017). This is affected by plant and seaweed extracts which contain ingredients that mimic hormone-like activities and have anti-oxidant properties causing crops to increase their overall metabolism to resist and tolerate abiotic stress like extreme temperatures and drought (Hassan et al., 2021). Crops will also recover faster from the impact of these stresses (van Oosten et al., 2017). In addition to stress management, biostimulants will increase the crops’ budding, flowering and fruiting processes. Nutrient absorption and translocation are also improved leading to higher yields. The shelf-life of harvested fruits, vegetables and cut flowers are extended with the correct application of biostimulants (Francini and Sebastiani, 2019). Most biostimulants in the market are seaweed extracts (El Boukhari et al., 2020).
As the name implies, they are for the control of pests viz. weeds, insects, diseases etc. Biological pesticides are made up of natural substances like biochemicals, plants, animals or microbials (Kumar et al., 2021). Biopesticides are quite pest specific and are relatively less toxic than synthetic pesticides; hence more environmentally friendly (Rajamani and Negi, 2021). Biochemical pesticides are mostly plant extracts, minerals, semiochemicals (pheromones), Plant Growth Regulators (PGR) and organic acids. Plant extracts are the largest segment in this category and an example of this would be neem plant extract (azadirachtin) for insecticides. Biopesticides of microbial origin are made from bacteria, fungus, virus, protozoa and yeasts. Bacteria and fungus make up the largest segment in this category. An example of a biological insecticide would be Bacillus thuringiensis and a biological fungicide would be Trichoderma or a different species of Bacillus (Damalas and Koutroubus, 2018). The big discussion on biopesticides today is on their relatively lower efficacy of control, commercial shelf-life and stability as compared to conventional synthetic pesticides but there are still situations whereby the biopesticides used would be necessary. This is especially so in an integrated management program to mitigate pest resistance and/or chemical residues in the food and environment (Surendra,2021).
Most biological products are suitable for organic farming, but their certification by authorities is a separate issue. As the trend towards organic food consumption grows with consumers’ affluence, there is already a research and marketing drive towards better biological products with more features that will benefit the farmer and the ever-discerning consumer. A summary of the different biological products available in Malaysia is shown in Table 1.
MARKET SITUATION AND TRENDS
Biological products have been used in home gardening and these have basically consisted of animal or plant wastes or by-products. As the use of biological products become more complex and sophisticated, branded products are being commercialized. The driving factors for use of biological products are the consumers’ demands, safer environment and profits for the farmers and stakeholders (Krishnen et al., 2016). It is a simple case that additional inputs in farms are always justified by their Return on Investment.
In Malaysia, mycorrhiza fungi are commonly used by hobbyists and farmers. It is also used on a larger scale by oil palm growers to supplement their fertilizer inputs to increase the availability of the nutrients to the oil palms (Shamala, 2010). Soil bacteria, soil conditioners and plant/animal products are used by food crop farmers (rice, fruits and vegetables) especially organic farmers (Nur Salina et al. 2021). While the certified organic farmers are considered small in terms of area planted, there are increasing number of farmers who are using biological products to supplement their conventional farming inputs. It is recognized that soil health can be improved by the use of correct biological soil amendments.
Biostimulants for the food crop market are gaining recognition for their stress resistant benefits and it is essential for farmers to be familiar with the timing of applications in order to gain the most out of the biostimulant used (de Vasconcelos and Chaves, 2019). Yield loss through abiotic stress could be between 50% and 70% (Fahad et al., 2017) of the potential yield and the use of biostimulants could arrest this loss. The biostimulants available are mostly seaweed extracts (Bulgari et al., 2014) and are commonly from Ascophyllum nodosum (family: Fucaceae; order: Fucales) and kelp (large brown seaweeds in the order Laminariales). They are good supplements for conventional fertilizer applications as they can unlock the yield potential of crops, reduce stress risks and enjoy longer shelf-life for their produce (Shukla et al., 2019). More so for farmers of high valued crops like tomato, chilli, melons and durian.
Use of pesticides is a necessity for most commercial farmers to ensure the quality of their produce. However, due to educated consumer pressure and regulatory guidelines, the types and frequency of pesticides use have become greener through the years. Farmers are more aware of the Post-Harvesting Intervals (PHI) and residues on the food crops which they apply pesticides on (Norida and Mumford, 2005). Bacillus thuringiensis insecticide is widely used as an alternative or addition to many other insecticides use (Lagadic and Caquet, 2014; Nitty Hirawaty et al., 2012). However, the availability of biopesticides is limited by its lower efficacy, lower stability and shorter shelf-life (Kirsch and Schmutterer, 1988).
Table 2 below gives an overall picture of some of the available biological products in Malaysia.
There is presently no regulatory process for the importation and use of fertilizers in Malaysia. However, biological products and biostimulants would fall under certain categories that require the application of permits. An import permit is required for the importation of all organic matters (plants, animals, microorganisms) and specifically for biological products, this will fall under the category of Microorganism and Organic Matter (MikroOrganisma dan Bahan Organik – MOBO Committee) (DOA b, 2022). The processing period could be 3-4 months, however, it is also subject to the results of a required laboratory analysis. The import permit is a one-time application. Biopesticides will be under the purview of Pesticides Act 1974 (Malaysia, 2015) which regulate the manufacture or import, sale and use of pesticides in Malaysia (Summer Jiang, 2017). The processing period could be 18 months long as it requires a review of a full dossier with trial reports. The registration is valid for a period of 5 years. Readers and would-be applicants are advised to check on the current status of the regulatory and import processes as these policies may have changed with time.
It is noted that the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security Malaysia's (MAFS) Vision is “Towards developing a sustainable, resilient and technology-based agrofood sector in driving economic growth, improving people's well-being as well as prioritising food security and nutrition” (MAFS, 2022). Malaysia is confident of the support and are encouraging the use of biological products as they are safe, environmentally friendly and effective. In addition to the support provided by the authorities in Malaysia, consumer demands will continue to drive the need for safe and quality food. Advances in farming techniques along the lines of Good Agricultural Practices, Integrated Crop Management and Integrated Pest Management will incorporate more uses of biological products to increase nutrient availability, abiotic stress resistance and pest management. The technological trend for biological products will see more advances with the introduction and use of beneficials (microorganisms, insects, plants that benefit the growth of crops like pollination, pest control, promote crop vitality and soil health) for a sustainable agriculture, resistance management and efficient nutrient uptake. There are also advances in the development of better biological product formulations including the possible incorporation of nanotechnology for better product efficacy, shelf-life and stability.
Organic farming in Malaysia may seem to be a niche market catering for the affluent and informed consumers but there is also a definite trend towards a more responsible sustainable way of farming with the integration of conventional and biological products. A wonderful hybrid situation may be developing in tandem with the encouragement from the authorities and the purposeful advancement of technology to produce marketable biological products. In the end, it is what the consumers want; the availability of affordable, safe and quality food that is produced from a sustainable safer environment.
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