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“Designer plants” help meet demand for palm oil and avoid deforestation

Scientists hope to replace low-yielding oil palms with selectively bred high yielding plants, dramatically increasingly yield.

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Designer plants may help meet global demand for palm oil and avoid deforestation. Ryan Woo/CIFOR

Selective breeding of palm oil plants may help meet global demand for palm oil and avoid deforestation. Ryan Woo/CIFOR

BALI, Indonesia (28 February, 2012)_Malaysian scientists now have the ability to trace for high oil-yielding genes in the palm oil plant, allowing them to create “designer palms” with the capacity to control the amount and type of oil being produced.

“We have finished sequencing the oil palm plant genome and so we can trace for high oil yielding genes. [With this approach] we also have the ability to produce low-saturated fat palm oil,” said Tan Yew Al from the Malaysian Palm Oil Board at the International Conference on Oil Palm and Environment (ICOPE) in Bali last week.

The conference opened with new vision for sustainable agriculture: “By 2020, the aim is to increase oil palm yield by 20 percent, decrease carbon emissions by 20 percent and see a 20 percent reduction in poverty,” said Franky O Widjaja, Co-chair of Partnership on Indonesia’s Sustainable Agriculture, World Economic Forum.

The need for vegetable oils is predicted to soar as the global population balloons, so “the challenge is now to produce more palm oil in a smaller area – one that does not threaten existing primary forest”, Tan said.

Oil palm cultivation is a critical factor for food production and provision of daily income to millions of people and is also a tool for development for many countries in the South. Indonesia and Malaysia are the largest oil palm producing countries, supplying 85 percent of the world’s demand for palm oil. In both countries, there are huge economic benefits from oil palm, with its value reaching USD$1,020 per tonne in January this year. The Malaysian palm oil industry is also the fourth largest contributor to the national economy and currently accounts for RM1,889 (8 percent) of the gross national income (GNI) per capita.

The theoretical potential for oil production from an oil palm plant is 18 tonnes per hectare per year. Malaysia now averages 4 tonnes per hectare per year so efforts to increase the yield of oil palm plants is their main focus.

While oil palm is the most efficient oil crop — with 4 to 9 fold higher productivity than other important oil seed crops — expansion of palm oil has encroached into tropical forest and had a serious impact on greenhouse gas emissions. A recent study by the Center for International Forestry Research quantified the atmospheric effects on changes in land use from biofuel production, and found that for palm oil grown on peatlands, the carbon emissions generated from land conversion could take hundreds of years to reverse.

However an increase in palm oil production need not necessarily come from land expansion, said Tan.

The challenge is now to produce more palm oil in a smaller area – one that does not threaten existing primary forest.

“As far as the Rio 1992 summit goes, Malaysia committed to preserving 50 percent of land cover as forest. After 20 years we are still at 55 percent forest cover, that means we haven’t actually expanded oil palm based on opening up the forests.”

And the environmental benefits from high-yielding palms are two-fold, she said.

“By avoiding land expansion, greenhouse gas emissions are going to decrease. Also we hope that we can design palms so as not require as much energy to be put into the extraction or refining of the oil.”

Through this approach, we are not only offsetting emissions but we are becoming more energy efficient at the same time.”

The demand for higher yield is most keenly felt by smallholders, said Tan. A recent CIFOR study into the livelihood impacts on oil palm farmers in Indonesia found that communities see palm oil as their best opportunity for increased prosperity, so “it is important that we help them comply with sustainability criteria like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)”, she said.

Selective breeding of palm oil plants in Malaysia is an ongoing project targeted at helping smallholders produce the highest oil-yielding palms possible. Through these methods, oil palms can be bred to yield between 8-12 tonnes per hectare.

“14 percent of the oil palm plantations in Malaysia are held by smallholders – they don’t have the financial means, the human resources and often don’t have the capability to produce sustainable palm oil. Through the Economic Transformation Program, we have been able help them with sustainability programs and projects.”

Smallholders are reluctant to replant after the 25-year maturity period to avoid short-term losses of income, as it takes three years for palms to mature before the first harvest. As a result, Malaysia holds a backlog of 365,414 hectares of palm oil trees aged above 25 years, which normally have a lower yield. If replanting is not accelerated, it will take 14 years to clear the backlog.

Through the Economic Transformation Fund, smallholders are able to access financial support to replace low-yielding oil palms with selectively bred high yielding plants.

There is a one-off replanting payment of RM6,000 per hectare and monthly payments of RM500 per household for two years to independent smallholders holding 2.5 hectares or less.

“Our aim is that by 2020, oil palm yield will go up six times.” Tan said.

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