CAREY ISLAND: Sime Darby Group’s palm oil yield increase from its new Genome Select plant will be equivalent to output from an additional 50,000 hectares of land – more than 1½ the size of Penang island.
By 2023, the group will have enough material to conduct its entire annual replanting exercise using Genome Select.
According to Sime Darby Plantation’s Research and Development Centre head Dr K. Harikrishna, all this will be achieved using the company’s existing planted area, and will not require a higher amount of fertiliser either.
Information in a chip: A Sime Darby Plantation employee using his smartphone to scan the Near Field Communication chip on a Genome Select oil palm seedling. The chip allows him to access information about the potential oil yield for a particular seedling, its ‘parents’ and location.
The Genome Select story began in 2003, when Sime Darby hired biotechnologists to conduct a feasibility study on the matter.
Five years later in June 2008, the company made the decision to invest in the project, and a month later, successfully sequenced the genome.
In May 2009, Sime Darby announced its success as the first company in the world to completely sequence, assemble and annotate the genome with 93.8% completeness.
And last month, seven years after successfully decoding the oil palm genome, the company commenced its first large-scale planting of the Genome Select high-yielding oil palm – marking a major milestone for the company as well as the industry.
The Genome Select palm is capable of delivering up to a 16% increase in oil yield over Sime Darby’s current best planting material, the Calix 600.
The company usually produces between eight and 10 tonnes of palm oil per hectare, but with Genome Select, output is expected to rise to 11.5 or 11.6 tonnes per hectare, under good growth conditions.
This will result in an average yield of above 6.1 tonnes per hectare across all environments in the group’s plantations, compared to the average of 5.3 tonnes per hectare yield from the Calix 600.
The new crop will also have better resistance to diseases, and tolerance to drought and salinity.
The group’s plantation arm, Sime Darby Plantation, conducts replanting on 5% of the company’s total planted area of 316,000 hectares each year. It expects a significant impact on the company’s bottomline by 2023, when it has enough Genome Select material for its entire annual replanting exercise.
For the moment, Genome Select will only be grown in Sime Darby’s plantations on local soil, due to restrictions in other countries.
The company is currently planting the first Genome Select palms on 50 hectares of its Dusun Durian plantation on Carey Island, in Banting, Selangor. The next batch will be planted on another 50 hectares at the Diamond Jubilee estate in Malacca, in September.
Dr Harikrishna says the research team spent the past seven year studying the components in the oil palm genetics that allow it to produce oil, and then developed tools to exploit this discovery on a commercial basis.
“The Genome Select is not genetic modification. Neither is it tissue culture cloning. It is basically a means for us to pick the best of the best, and plant those materials. So we are able to identify the best genes in the pool of our breeding materials, and advance this to the field,” he says.
He describes the company’s success as a “quantum leap in oil palm genetics”.
Sime Darby, Dr Harikrishna says, has been investing in oil palm breeding since the 1920s.
“On average, a breeding cycle lasts between 10 and 14 years, and you will get an increment of 8% to 10% for every breeding cycle.
“But what we have managed to achieve today is to double the rate of increase, in half the amount of time. And this, we believe, is a quantum leap,” he says.
Sime Darby sets aside about 2% to 3% of its annual revenue, or about RM120mil per year, for R&D expenditure, and about 10% of this goes to research on the oil palm genome.
For the first 100 hectares to be planted in Carey Island and Malacca this year, the research team sampled 80,000 seedlings, and conducted 80 million genetic tests.
“For these 100 hectares, we have made the best crosses. This was possible due to the teamwork between the R&D and operations departments as well as our collaborators, who are some of the most renowned companies in the world in this area,” says Dr Harikrishna.
Although the breakthrough is significant, he says, it is just scratching the surface of possibilities in the future.
“We are going to introduce many other traits over the next few years and this will make oil palm even more sustainable and productive,” he says.