Microbes for Our Own Good

In Northeast India, bordered by China, Bhutan and Nepal, the unlikely Indian state of Sikkim might be the least populous and one of the smallest states in the country, but it prides itself as among the most environmentally conscious states.

The Himalayan state was declared fully organic in January 2016. Organic agriculture means feeding the world sustainably and responsibly by producing safer foods and reducing harm caused to the environment.

The movement started 13 years prior to that. The Chief Minister announced a remedy to the serious environmental and health problems in the state caused by chemically intensive farming methods. The state then banned chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilisers stage by stage. There were ample time and support for farmers to adapt to this new policy.

When I travelled to India last weekend to attend my daughter’s convocation, I took the opportunity to visit the vast research and development (R&D) site of T. Stanes and Company. It currently makes “agro-inputs that are bio-degradable, eco-friendly, safe to use, protect the crop and increase the yield”.

Located in Coimbatore, the second largest city in the state of Tamil Nadu, it is a business that dates back to 1861, when British Sir Robert Stanes whose trip to India was supposed to be a holiday, set up the Stanes Coffee Curing Works, the first of many companies in the city. Along the way the company had diversified into textile, then bio-products for farming.

During my visit the researchers took the time in explaining how the company believed in applying microbes in their agricultural practices, especially in managing nutrients, water, pest and disease. The term “microbes” usually refers to microorganisms such as fungi, yeasts, bacteria and viruses. As I was trained in forestry, I naturally took a special interest in their R&D.

A common perception about microbes is that they are always disease-causing agents. Yet the truth is far from it. In fact several local companies that manufacture and market biofertilisers and products related to plant protection such as IBG Manufacturing, All Cosmos and Virgin Green are recognised as Bionexus companies by BioEconomy Corporation.

BioNexus a special status awarded to qualified biotech companies that would grant them fiscal incentives and other forms of development aid. Most importantly, those who enjoy this tax break are also required to reinvest three per cent of their total revenue into R&D.

Here are brief examples of how suitable microbes can be beneficial in three agricultural sectors – crop, livestock and aquaculture. In farming, biofertilisers that contain microbes can increase nutrient availability to plants; microbes in biopesticides can protect plants from diseases; remediate nutrition-exhausted soil when applied to it.

In animal husbandry, microbes are given to livestock to provide immunity toward diseases; make animal feed more digestible in livestock and added to faeces to result in organic fertilisers. In aquaculture, microbes in the form of probiotics are given to fish and shrimps to improve their wellbeing and are added to the water to improve its quality therefore reducing usage.

Biofertilisers especially, should be considered by smallholder farmers in Sabah. Contrary to synthetic fertilisers that merely provides more nutrients, biofertilisers help cultivate soil fertility instead. Synthetic ones would cause soil to be less fertile over time, running into surrounding water sources, eventually polluting them and disrupting aquatic ecosystems.

The success of the 100 per cent organic state Sikkim can be attributed to regulatory frameworks, biofertiliser subsidy policies and a determined awareness campaign on why farmers and consumers should support organic produces. Imagine producing safer foods in Sabah and even the country for our own consumption, at a lower cost, retaining the quality of soil in the long-term and in an eco-friendly manner.

Sabah can be the first fully organic state in the country.

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