Sun, Mar 17, 2019 - Page 15 News List

Malaysia plants hope for future of palm oil in dwarf trees, but cost still an issue

By M. Jegathesan  /  AFP, BUKIT LAWIANG, Malaysia

A researcher handles a test tube with a dwarf palm oil tree seedling at the Malaysian Palm Oil Board’s lab on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur on Dec. 18 last year.

Photo: AFP

Test tubes holding plants line shelves in a Malaysian laboratory, the heart of a breeding program for dwarf palm oil trees that scientists hope will cut costs and limit the environmental damage caused by the controversial industry.

Palm oil has become a key ingredient in everyday goods from biofuels to chocolate, leading to a production boom in the world’s top two growers, Indonesia and Malaysia.

However, environmental groups blame rapid expansion of plantations for laying waste to jungle that is home to orangutans and other animals, as well as indigenous communities’ lands, and sustained environmental campaigns have damaged its image in the West.

The bad publicity, combined with rising stockpiles and sluggish demand from key importers, has led to precipitous falls in prices.

Now the Malaysian Palm Oil Board hopes an initiative to breed smaller trees could go some way to improving industry woes.

“With this smaller variety, we can improve yields, maximize land use and improve palm oil sustainability,” plant scientist Meilina Ong-Abdullah told reporters in the lab in the town of Bangi, as other women in white gowns and surgical masks sliced at plants and transferred them into test tubes.

However, the plan faces huge challenges, not least the relatively high price of the newly created trees, which might make them too expensive for many of the country’s hard-pressed farmers.

The dwarf trees, which are about 30 percent smaller than regular ones and have shorter fronds, are the fruit of a decades-long research program by the board, which is a government agency.

Their small size makes it easier and quicker for the bunches of red berries from which the oil is extracted to be collected, and means fewer workers are needed for harvesting.

A greater number of the trees can be packed into a smaller space, and they produce about 37.5 tonnes of palm oil fruit per hectare — twice the current average.

This should mean that less rain forest needs to be logged to cultivate the world’s best-selling vegetable oil and could make more productive use of land that is being replanted after previous clearances. The plan might help address the problem of land scarcity for cultivation caused by voracious growth of plantations.

In Malaysia alone, palm oil plantations already cover about 5.8 million hectares — roughly the size of Croatia.

As part of the board’s breeding program, the dwarf trees have been planted in several areas, including on an estate in Bukit Lawiang in southern Johor State. The dwarf trees there are about 5m tall, compared with an average of about 7.5m for conventional trees in the area.

The dwarf trees went on sale in 2017, but take-up has been slow. At about 30 ringgit (US$7.33) each, the seedlings are about twice the price of conventional varieties.

Mohamad Isa Mansor, who has a 5 hectare palm oil plantation, said that he wanted to buy them — but the cost was a “killer.”

“Smallholders are poor and sustaining our daily life is a challenge due to depressed prices of crude palm oil,” he told reporters.

“To replant a hectare with the new variety will cost about 6,000 ringgit. Where are we going to find this huge sum of money?” he added.

Nor does the government appear ready to step in and help.

Malaysian Minister of Primary Resources Teresa Kok (郭素沁), whose portfolio includes the palm oil sector, told reporters that the cash-strapped government “doesn’t have funds to assist smallholders to do replanting at the moment.”

This story has been viewed 3070 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top