Features

Published: Monday April 8, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Friday February 14, 2014 MYT 1:58:37 PM

Search for the ideal oil palm continues

HAILING from Africa, oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) established itself in Malaysia from seeds introduced via Indonesia, but much has changed over the past century as far as the variety of planting materials are concerned.

It was seeds imported in 1911 and 1912 that marked the beginning of the oil palm industry in Malaysia – they culminated in the establishment of the first oil palm plantation in Malaysia in 1917. Prior to that, some oil palms were planted in South-East Asia as ornamental plants, before their commercial potential overshadowed their aesthetic appeal.

All modern, commercial planting material now consists of tenera palms or hybrids between dura and pisifera palm, otherwise known as DXP hybrids. DXPs are obtained by crossing dura palm, which produces a thick-shelled fruit, with shell-less pisifera palm. DXP crosses are also known as tenera palms, and is the most commonly cultivated oil palm tree.

With an economic lifespan of roughly 25 years, the current generation of tenera palms planted here produces about four tonnes per hectare per year (t/ha/y) of crude palm oil, 0.5 t/ha/yr of palm kernel oil, and 0.5 t/ha/yr of palm kernel cake. In 2012, the national average production of fresh fruit bunches was 18.89 t/ha, while oil extraction rate was at 20.35%.

Plant breeding is the art and science of selecting the best traits from plants in order to produce progenies with desired characteristics. Scientists have a wide array of methods at their disposal to achieve that, and it can be as simple as selecting plants with desirable characteristics for propagation to more complex techniques involving molecular markers.

According to Dr Ahmad Khusairi Din, deputy director-general for research at the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, the adoption of tenera, which boosted yields by up to 30%, represented the “first wave” in yield improvement of oil palms.

“Oil palm is an exceptional example where quantum leap in yield was achieved through a single gene,” he said in a presentation retracing the role of breeding and selection in productivity increases.

Continuous improvements of oil palm is important as it is now a major food crop, and has the potential to produce biofuel. In 2012, Malaysian palm oil contributed to about 12% of global vegetable oil production.

A lot of research on the genetical aspects of oil palm are undertaken by Felda Global Ventures Holdings, which is the world’s largest palm oil producer (accounting for almost 7% of the world’s production in 2011). The research work is entrusted to its subsidiary, Felda Agriculture Services (FAS), which enlists the best expertise, both local and foreign, in its quest. For example, it has an advisory panel of scientists from Europe and Malaysia that meets yearly to evaluate the direction and progress of its R&D programmes.

“There are also six Malaysians from various disciplines on the panel, with expertise ranging from manufacturing to agronomy to crop protection,” said S. Palaniappan, FAS executive director and chief executive officer. FAS is now recognised as a world-class R&D outfit in oil palm breeding, tissue culture, biotechnology, agronomy, and crop protection.

According to Dr Tristan Durand-Gasselin, scientific and technical director of PalmElit, a France-based company that specialises in oil palm breeding, the imperative for palm breeding cannot be any more urgent.

“The global demand for edible vegetable oils is growing at about 4% to 6% annually, while genetic improvements can only contribute around 1% annually, at best.

“So, there is a huge gap that must be filled by either increasing the acreage or improving the productivity of existing plantations,” said Durand-Gasselin, who is one of the experts hired by FAS, along with five other foreign scientists.

FAS has been the sole supplier of oil palm materials to Felda since 1970 and it currently supplies 70% of the local market requirement for seeds, including that from listed companies. It can produce up to 25 million germinated seeds a year.

The selection of the right planting material is of utmost importance as the palm will be kept for at least 25 years. Planting using seeds randomly picked up from the ground can lower yields by as much as 70%, so it is worthwhile for plantation companies to purchase quality seeds or seedlings from accredited palm breeders, such as FAS.

In theory, increasing the yield can ease the demand for more land. Malaysia has struggled with increasing yields since the advent of the tenera, though experts point out that it cannot be solely blamed on genetical limitations alone. For example, good agronomic practices also count a lot for palms grown on marginal soil.

“Of course, if you want to feed the increased human population in future, all of us would also have to eat less meat, and eat more vegetables,” said Durand-Gasselin, a Frenchman who has been involved in plant breeding for more than three decades.

Did the much-touted sequencing of the oil palm genome lead to any subsequent breakthroughs? “The genome sequence is useful for all breeders. So now, rather than working ‘blind’, we will know the genes that are responsible for any particular characteristic. But that said, it will take decades to translate all this knowledge from sequencing into things that are meaningful. Things are improving bit by bit each year, but there will not be any quantum jump. Sequencing is a tool to help things be more efficient, but it will not change everything in a few years,” said Durand-Gasselin, who travels to Malaysia twice a year to render his expertise.

One of the important issues being looked at by palm breeders is how to overcome the prevalence of basal stem rot, caused by the soil-dwelling fungi from the Ganoderma genus. The disease has caused major losses in the industry in South-East Asia, especially in Malaysia and Indonesia. It will eventually kill the palm, and its spores can remain in the ground to infect other healthy palms. Current “treatment” means digging up the plant, including the roots, and exposing them to the sun so that most of the fungi can be killed.

This is one disease where conventional pest management is difficult as the fungi is soil-borne, and it is hard to apply any biocontrol. Durand-Gasselin argued that genetic improvement is essential, even with increased understanding on the role of integrated pest management strategies.

Beyond yield and disease resistance, a palm breeder’s work is also complicated by the demands of practicality and oil chemistry. An ideal palm, in Durand-Gasselin’s opinion, would promise twice the yield and be: resistant to pests and diseases; short (for easy pruning and harvesting); slow-growing; efficient in fertiliser uptake and conversion; and easy to harvest by machine. It would produce crude palm oil that is low in free fatty acids (too much of this will affect the oil quality and certain applications), have a balanced ratio between unsaturated and saturated fatty acids, as well as have a longer economic life (currently averaging about 25 years or slightly more).

Resistance to pests and diseases means that little or no pesticides are needed, thus making the industry more environment-friendly. Better utilisation of fertilisers means less needs to be applied.

“However, you can only tweak a few things at one time. You cannot do 20 things at once. Yield and resistance are important. After that, maybe you can add growth rate. Once you find a good variety or hybrid, the next step is to mass produce that single individual via the cloning process. Cloning is a way to grab some of the progress made in plant breeding. A perfect palm, I’m afraid, does not exist. Perhaps, after a few more centuries of work, we might get a little bit closer to that goal.”

Tags / Keywords: Palm Oil, Environment, palm oil, oil palm

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