A farming practice is creating huge clouds of smoke in Malaysia and endangering people’s health. A small company is innovating and using biotechnology to help solve the issue and at the same time boost farmers’ incomes.
Air pollution has been an ongoing problem in many countries in South-east Asia, and Malaysia is one of the worst affected. Each year, a smoky haze blankets the country for months on end.
Although most of the smoke is produced by ‘slash and burn’ during forest clearance in neighbouring countries, one of the other main causes of the haze is the burning of rice straws in Malaysia itself.
After each seasonal harvest, farmers burn rice straw to help prepare the soil for the next crop. The practice releases nutrients back into the ground and helps with pest control.
But the burning of an estimated 2.5 million tonnes of paddy straw after the harvest creates clouds of smoke that contribute to a haze that plays havoc on roads and hampers commercial flight operations from regional airports.
The air pollution index often reaches dangerous levels, forcing schools to close. Large numbers of people in nearby villages and towns suffer from respiratory problems, like asthma. Sometimes, the haze completely blocks out the sun.
“Instead of letting the paddy husks go to waste, we’ve come up with a solution - converting rice straw and husks into biodegradable packaging” explains Ramaness Parasuraman, the CEO of Free the Seed, a local biotech company.