1984 Laureate, Environment
Malaysia, Born 1936
Mount Kinabalu, in the Malaysian State of Sabah, rises to 4,100 metres above sea level, the highest peak in South-East Asia. The local population, however, lives at altitudes of 1,200-1,500 metres where temperatures are like those of early spring in the world’s temperate zones. The vibrant and crisp climate offers day temperatures, which seldom exceed 25°C, and the pleasantly cool nights are 15°C all year round.
The population has exploited what Thean Soo Tee called "a perpetual spring climate" for terraced mountainside farming of a wide range of vegetables, including cabbages, tomatoes, onions, peas and carrots. Yet variable crop quality and quantity, coupled with inefficient marketing, had made both prices and farmers’ incomes erratic. Also, since crops were annual, land was generally ploughed after each harvest, causing intense soil erosion.
Thean Soo Tee, who has a master’s degree in agronomy and a doctorate in genetics from the University of California at Davis, decided in the early 1980s to try to improve the living standards of the local population. He planned to introduce a crop with a high market value and promote more efficient crop-processing and marketing techniques among the farmers. He also envisaged planting a perennial crop with a root formation that would permanently bind the soil and reduce the high level of soil erosion on the steep, terraced crop areas.
Tee decided the crop that would fulfil all these criteria was asparagus, a vegetable virtually unknown in Malaysia. In temperate zones, perennial asparagus produces edible shoots only during early spring when, in rising temperatures, the dormant buds of underground asparagus crowns form buds that sprout rapidly into the nutritious vegetable. "I subjected asparagus to the continuous spring climate of the Mount Kinabalu irrigated tropical highlands," explains Tee. "Amazingly, the growth pattern was altered, plants grew continuously without dormancy, and latent buds on the crowns broke into spears. Young shoots elongated rapidly and unfolded into fine delicate fern within ten days of emergence.”
By harvesting shoots only six days after they emerged, Tee found that he obtained high-quality, compact spears that were extremely marketable and could command a premium price. Furthermore, dense asparagus root growth bound the soil and, being perennial, eliminated ploughing. This contributed to holding back soil erosion.
Tee introduced his first asparagus, the Mary Washington variety, in July 1981 on three hectares of a government farm at an altitude of 1,200 metres. Growth was vigorous and by May of 1982, commercial grade spears were available for harvest. Special pruning, fertilisation and management techniques were introduced to sustain production. At the same time, Tee drew up a plan to develop a local processing and packaging industry and improve marketing techniques to maximise farmers’ incomes.
Ten years after Tee received his Rolex Award winnings, with which he purchased seeds for testing and distribution to farmers, asparagus production is flourishing on the Mount Kinabalu foothills, even though Tee himself has moved on to Brunei where he is introducing new crops and assessing their suitability to local conditions. "Recently, I visited Sabah to assess the impact asparagus had made in the region," relates Tee. "Changes have occurred, and a farmer friend was delighted to show me his plot planted originally during the time I was promoting asparagus. He is now a prosperous farmer, and known for his quality asparagus. It gave me a sense of satisfaction."
The Sabah Government has supported asparagus cultivation with subsidized fertilisers and free seedlings. Other varieties have been tested, but only Mary Washington seems to withstand the wet, windy conditions. Some 30 farmers are currently farming asparagus and other vegetables, but asparagus continues to be the permanent crop sustaining earnings. There are now also three large firms that plant asparagus together with high-market-value ornamental flowers. Asparagus packaging and marketing have flourished and have attracted other activities. All in all, says Tee, "the inhabitants now have better purchasing power judging from the numerous shops that have opened in the local town."
The Rolex Award not only gave a welcome boost to environmentally friendly and profitable farming in Sabah, it has also proved an important source of personal satisfaction to Tee. "The Award has given me confidence to work harder and a sense of achievement."
Published in 2006