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A recent news report from the United States describing how the candy giant Mars, makers of the Snickers brand bar, M&M’s and other popular chocolate products, secured the services of a biotech company to help breed a cacao tree resilient to the growing threats of climate change and disease. (File pic)

EVEN if they possess an abundance of natural resources, developing countries like Malaysia will forever play second fiddle to developed countries if they lack a mastery of science and technology.

A case in point: a recent news report from the United States describing how the candy giant Mars, makers of the Snickers brand bar, M&M’s and other popular chocolate products, secured the services of a biotech company to help breed a cacao tree resilient to the growing threats of climate change and disease.

It is an intriguing development well worth noting in Malaysia.

Howard Shapiro, the chief agricultural officer for Mars, was quoted as saying that 40 per cent of the world’s cacao crop is lost each year to fungal, viral, and pest problems.

The biotech firm will equip the Mars’ company cacao experts with software that will help tap into the cacao tree’s natural genetic diversity and analyse how to rapidly find genetic lines that are more able to cope with unfavourable growing conditions.

The approach can shave years off the development process, simulating offspring and using machine learning to predict their quality. Combined with other advances like gene editing and sequencing, high technology is creating new agricultural opportunities.

Other crops hit by disease or other threats include bananas, papayas, and oranges — all grown largely in monocultures. As one expert said: “We’ve got to get deliberate about tapping into that natural genetic diversity.”

The article points up the need for a critical introspection in Malaysia on the use of biotech as a catalyst for much-needed genetic diversification. This has got to be one of the main missions of the Malaysian Bioeconomy Development Corporation in the era of a New Malaysia. The same goes for the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology as far as areas in high technology are concerned. It is about future-proofing the nation amid the rapid technological advances taking place around us.

In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, big data and artificial intelligence are among many technological developments that will hold sway. It is wise, therefore, to look out for these advances which may have an impact on our livelihood in the future.

We have been playing catch-up with the developed countries for far too long. We need to review our plans and reassess how we want to move forward, mobilising the myriad sources of human talent present in our multi-cultural midst and preparing our younger generation to face the challenges of the future.

There are already successful role models. Malaysians making their presence felt on the global stage include, for example, Tan Sri Lim Wee Chai, the executive chairman and founder of Top Glove Corporation Bhd, the company that controls 25 per cent of the world market for rubber gloves. He was once quoted as saying, Malaysia “must speed up a move to more value-added production”.

While the country has shifted focus — from tin and rubber industries that were the bedrock of the colonial economy to the electronics factories and palm oil plantations of today — the transformation needs to go further, he says. He has also proposed building “more chocolate factories rather than more cocoa plantations”. An ardent advocate of research and development (R&D), Lim employs about 120 researchers in-house, believing in the simple adage of “no research, no future”.

Smaller and cheaper-cost rivals in the region, like Vietnam, are reducing the competitive advantage of Malaysian manufacturers and becoming bigger contenders for foreign investment. Our companies are still too labour intensive, productivity’s low, and mechanisation rates trail Thailand and Singapore.

We need to continue the growth of investments in our educational system in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) while not neglecting the social sciences and humanities, producing more high-quality university graduates that are industry-ready, spending more on R&D, and improving our governance structure in science if we are serious about not getting stuck in the “middle income quagmire”.

Malaysia doesn’t grow much cocoa, but it has become the continent’s No. 2 processor by grinding beans imported from Indonesia.

Malaysia has 51 chocolate manufacturers and confectioneries and 194 local chocolate producers, selling about RM1.1 billion a year. In comparison, the cocoa it cultivated last year was valued at US$5 million when calculated using average futures prices for 2016.

In the 2018 Global Competitiveness Report released last October by the World Economic Forum, Malaysia rose one notch to the 25th spot out of 140 countries surveyed. Malaysia was one of the only three non-high-income economies featured in the Top 40. The other two were China (28th) and Thailand (38th).

As we start the new year, let us hope for Malaysia’s continued progress towards advanced nation status, characterised by a workforce well-educated in the sciences and the humanities, drawing strength from our diverse ethnic composition and able to create value-added products in an increasingly competitive world economy.

Zakri Abdul Hamid , a distinguished fellow of the Washington D.C–based Global Federation of Competitiveness Council, is former director of the United Nations University’s Institute of Advanced Studies in Tokyo

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