Genting Plantations Berhad moves forward with technology

Milestone Announcement at World Congress of Information Technology 2008, Kuala Lumpur, on the completion of the first draft assembly of the oil palm genome. From left, Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay, chief executive, Genting Plantations Berhad, Datuk Dr Maximus Ongkili (then Science, Technology and Innovation Minister), Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak (then Deputy Prime Minister),Venter, CEO, Synthetic Genomics, Inc, Datuk Peter Chin (then Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister). — Genting Plantations Berhad

With arable land becoming scarce, Genting Plantations Berhad has focused its attention on unlockingthe full potential of oil palm.

SOMETHING profound happens when opportunities meet opportunists. That winning formula should serve anyone well. So, it’s no surprise, then, why Genting has become an ubiquitous brand name, what with the guile and tenacity of its founder, Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong.

But as visionary as he may have been, surely even he couldn’t have fathomed the level of technological advancements his agricultural arm, Genting Plantations Berhad (GENP), has adeptly forged ahead with today. In a time when globalisation has made the world a microcosm of what it was when he gained ownership of 13,700ha of plantation land in 1980, arable land has clearly become a finite commodity.

While expansion plans have taken the company, to not only East Malaysia (Sabah in 1988), but Indonesia (Kalimantan in 2005), too, amassing landbank totalling over 227,000ha in the process, Genting Plantations has mapped out the future to lie in science and technology.

With the Nobel-prize-winning metathesis technology, developed by American company Elevance Renewable Sciences, the plantation organisation is able to unlock palm oil’s potential as renewable chemicals, to enter the lucrative global high-performance chemicals market, ultimately revolutionising the crop’s value creation.

“This collaboration with Elevance allows us to produce high-value specialty chemicals, olefins and also high-value palm oil derivatives,” said Yong Chee Kong, president and chief operating officer of GENP. According to him, some of these are superior substitutes to petrochemical-based products. “Products that come out of this area are novel and also green, and have a big addressable market,” he added.

The Humana school project has brought educational opportunities to 700 underprivileged children from Genting Plantations’ 13 operating units in Sabah.
The Humana school project has brought educational opportunities to 700 underprivileged children from Genting Plantations’ 13 operating units in Sabah. 

The Genting Integrated Biorefinery Complex, situated in Lahad Datu, Sabah, will cater to this three-pronged approach, with two biodiesel plants running; palm oil refinery in operation since the early part of this year; and the metathesis plant expected to be set up soon, making it the first facility in Malaysia and the largest in the world to convert palm oil into olefins and specialty chemicals.

With the rising cost of production, labour is obviously a point of deliberation, but GENP has already embarked on mechanisation. “We have introduced mechanisation initiatives, especially in field works. Today, we can proudly say that in West Malaysia, we are fully mechanised in all of the areas possible. And in East Malaysia, we are 90% mechanised, and should be fully mechanised in all possible areas within a year,” Yong explained.

“We believe that genomics and science-driven initiatives hold the key in boosting yields and unlocking other valuable traits of the oil palm,” he added.

Using genome technology, ACGT, the biotech arm of GENP, has developed markers which are able to identify oil palms that are high or low yielders from the start. “We have since proceeded with planting palms screened using our markers on a large scale” Yong shared.

Yong intimated that genome sequencing and a more holistic approach involving the study of microbes that live in and around the roots, are what will affect the uptake of nutrients and water, consequently impacting the growth of the oil palms and reducing its susceptibility to disease.

ACGT has also formulated a microbial-based formulation, named Yield Booster, that has plant growth promoting properties as well as the ability to reduce ganoderma infection.  The early testing of Yield Booster in GENP’s estates is showing encouraging results, and yield increases of more than 20% in the applied fields have been observed. “We are now looking towards scaling up production for use in our commercial plantings,” Yong said.

When GENP’s chief executive, Tan Sri K.T. Lim, met renowned American biochemist and geneticist, Craig Venter, at a TED Global conference 12 years ago, the idea for mapping oil palm’s genome was first discussed.

The collaboration which grew out of that dialogue made GENP take the bold step of sequencing the oil palm genome. Venter was convinced that if a plant’s genome could be deciphered, the possibilities could become boundless. “We began to look upon the possibility of oil palm becoming a tree that could supply the world’s energy needs ... that’s Tan Sri K.T. Lim’s vision for the Gasoline Tree,” Yong shared.

Genting Plantations has preserved areas that are inhabitated by wildlife such as the proboscis monkey, hornbill and migratory birds.
Genting Plantations has preserved areas that are inhabitated by wildlife such as the proboscis monkey, hornbill and migratory birds. 

With sustainability a key issue for the plantation industry, GENP is playing its part in making sure its production is environmentally-friendly, and its RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) membership is proof of its commitment.

Its oil mill in Sabah, Genting Jambongan Oil Mill, is the nation’s first successfully-commissioned zero discharge mill. A staggering 100% of raw waste from the mill is converted into biofertiliser at the composting plant, all of which is channelled back into estate fields.

“That is  a zero dilution mill which requires minimal water for processing. As such, effluent discharge is reduced. And to turn waste to compost, we use thermophilic aerobic microbes, whereby the high temperature generated would evaporate all effluent produced. That way, there is no discharge into waterways, the ground or ocean,” Yong said.

Conservation efforts by the palm oil producer include being the first notable plantation company to participate in the Kinabatangan Corridor of Life project in Sabah in 1999, initiated by the World Wildlife Fund, where 86.5ha of riparian reserves along the Tenegang Besar River, a major tributary of the Kinabatangan river, were dedicated to rehabilitation and restoration, where more than 30,000 trees have been planted to date. Close to 45ha in Genting Suan Lamba Estate has been earmarked for conservation, as part of the Keruak Wildlife Corridor, the link between the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary and the Keruak Forest Reserve which provides safe passage for elephants and other wildlife to roam freely.

“Currently, we also have 17,000ha of land in Indonesia, which we have identified and set aside for conservation because these areas have high conservation value. That works out to 7% to 8% of our total landbank,” said Yong.

Like any other corporation, GENP has also found the need to take care of its human capital and give back to society. Estate and mill workers are provided good living conditions, including homes, treated water, power supply and medical assistance.

We believe that palm oil will continue to be the golden crop, says Yong Chee Kong, president and chief operating officer of Genting Plantations Bhd. — SHAARI CHEMAT/The Star
We believe that palm oil will continue to be the golden crop, says Yong Chee Kong, president and chief operating officer of Genting Plantations Bhd. — SHAARI CHEMAT/The Star

“We also have in place for them sports facilities, so they can play sports like football, futsal and badminton. They can observe their religious obligations at places of worship we’ve built, as well,” he added.

With education the way forward, GENP is collaborating with the non-profit Borneo Child Aid Society to realise the Humana School project, which aims to bring educational opportunities to underprivileged children, who would otherwise be denied access given their geographical location, poverty or legal status. This initiative benefits more than 700 children from our 13 operating units in Sabah.

Higher up the education ladder, GENP, aside from granting yearly scholarships to undergraduates of University Putra Malaysia under the Tan Sri (Dr.) Lim Goh Tong Endowment Fund, is also collaborating with Tunku Abdul Rahman University College (TAR UC) to address the human capital challenges confronting the palm oil industry. “We are working with them to set up a course related to oil palm plantation management, with exposure to palm oil milling as well,” he said.

Palm oil will remain at the heart of GENP’s immediate future plans, and Yong firmly believes the technology age will continue to lead the way: “Plantation is our core. It will remain so in the foreseeable future because we believe oil palm will continue to be the golden crop.”

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