Opportunities in sustainable farming
BACTERIA, for the most part, is associated with illness, diseases or an unhygienic environment.
Interestingly, though, up to 70% of bacteria found in our natural environment are actually termed as “good bacteria”. These bacteria can be used for treatment of diseases, promote healthy growth and strengthen immunity systems in living organisms.
Malaysian agriculture biotechnology company, Virgin Greens X Sdn Bhd, aims to promote the use of this natural biological wonder to transform how food and agriculture products are produced.
Founded in 2013, the company operates via three main pillars, namely, research and development (R&D), production of microbial formulations and marketing of its solutions. So far, it has three patented solutions that have been commercialised and used in private farms and large plantations.
One of the biggest opportunities for Virgin Greens, says chief executive officer Eric Chung, is in sustainable farming. He notes that organic farming, which currently comprises around 2% of total agriculture produced around the world, is not yet a viable option to replace traditional farming.
“The answer to sustainability in the agriculture sector depends on how we are able to use biotechnology as an integral part of the art and science of plant breeding and in other components of the agriculture system,” he says.
It is not a secret that one of the biggest issues facing the agriculture sector is pollution and contamination in food production, mainly due to the large scale use of commercial chemicals and fertilisers.
Chung says Virgin Greens is advocating the use of natural bacteria in agriculture rather than other well-publicised techniques such as the production of genetically modified or genetically engineered produce.
“The cost associated with organic farming means organic agriculture products are too expensive and will never be mainstream. Based on our studies, the most we estimate is for organic farming to reach around 5% of total farming output over the next 10 years.
“What we are proposing is a hybrid system known as sustainable biotech agriculture, combining traditional agricultural practices but with strictly non-chemical, only natural fertiliser and disease control applications,” says Chung.
Many farm owners, including durian and palm oil plantation companies, are now turning to the company for its expertise and products to overcome some of the long-standing problems faced by the industry.
An example that Chung highlighted as a successful prove-of-concept is its solution to durian farmers. One of the hottest segments in agriculture at the moment, durian plantations have long been plagued by fungal infection which could rot the root, stem and fruits of the trees.
“Farm owners used to apply commercial chemical treatments which are not efficient, very costly and, at the same time, pollutes the soil and drainage systems at the farms.
“Virgin Greens’ cocktail of indigenous microbes (bacteria) has proven to be an effective solution to this problem and now, most of the major durian producing regions such as Bentong has been using our products,” says Chung.
Given the fact that only around 30% of bacteria are harmful, there seems to be a large potential for microbiologists to commercialise the different microbes for various applications.
But according to Chung, one of the long-standing problems in doing this is the gap in commercialisation efforts by researchers and research institutions such as universities.
Virgin Greens plans to fill in the gap by bringing its patented products to the mass market. Chung says the time is ripe to bring in potential investors to help fund its commercialisation efforts, estimated to be at US$4mil, including to set up a research laboratory in Hong Kong and expand into China’s commercial agriculture sector.
The market for sustainable biotech agriculture has huge potential in China due to food safety concerns, he says.
Virgin Greens is in the midst finalising discussions with plantation and land owners in Malaysia to provide them with a platform for sustainable biotech agriculture development. Chung expects the project to start by the third quarter of this year.
The company will focus on two of the country’s main commercial crops – oil palm and durian. This will involve up to 20,000 acres of land for its sustainable biotech agriculture project over a period of five years.
Listed on the National Stock Exchange of Australia – a market for startup companies – since 2016, Virgin Greens, which has a current market value of around US$4mil (RM16.2mil) aims to reach a valuation of RM1bil within five years.
Looking at the next phase of growth for the company, Chung says it may sell up to 49% stake to strategic or financial investors in a soon-to-be-set-up subsidiary company. This new company will undertake its first large scale commercial biotech agriculture venture.
Chung says the company is constantly in discussion with potential venture capital firms or private investors who are keen to tap into the company’s intellectual properties, patented products and R&D expertise. It also welcomes approaches from advisers who can help the company secure suitable investors.
He adds that Virgin Greens will consider potential divestment in the holding company.
Chung and two other co-founders currently control the majority stake in Virgin Greens.
Virgin Greens’ products, marketed under the MG brand name, include MG Plus which is designed to promote plant growth, MG BioGuard for disease prevention and control and MG PestGuard, used for pest control. The products are manufactured by five contract manufacturers.
The company currently has around 20 employees, including microbiologists and agronomists as well as personnel in production, quality control, sales and customer management. The team looks after both its local and overseas markets.
For a biologist with years of expertise and experience in many other sustainability related projects such as solar and energy systems, water treatments and plant diseases, Chung is optimistic that helping to ensure long term food security will turn out to be the most sustainable and lucrative venture.
Of course, being able to promote “friendly” bacteria and break the myths associated with these microorganisms are also part of what makes work interesting for Chung.