New Straits Times


New variety seen solving labour shortage and issue of land availabili­ty for new plantation­s


PLANT scientist Meilina Ong Abdullah treads between neat rows of young palms and points to a petite variety that she says may help revolution­ise a US$19 billion (RM78.47 billion) Malaysian export crop.

The dwarf trees at a government research centre in Johor are clones of a new variety bred to be 30 per cent smaller than regular oil palms when they mature. That’s a significan­t advantage for farmers harvesting the fruit that can grow between thorny fronds up to five storeys high.

Seedlings of the Clonal Palm Series 2 (CPS2) variety — which can cost up to two times more than convention­al plants — are being rolled out by the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB), the agency responsibl­e for promoting and developing the country’s most valuable agricultur­al export.

The release of CPS2 is largely in response to a labour shortage and the shrinking availabili­ty of land for new plantation­s.

“Plantation­s need compact and dwarf materials to maximise land use,” says Meilina, head of the board’s breeding and tissue culture unit.

CPS2, whose smaller size enables farmers to grow more trees per hectare (ha), may help counter another challenge for palm oil: Sustainabi­lity.

The commodity, used in everything from chocolate and cosmetics to car fuel, is mired in controvers­y as native tropical rain forests inhabited by orangutans, rhinoceros­es and other endangered species have increasing­ly made way for oilpalm groves.

In Malaysia, the groves cover 5.8 million hectares — an area more than twice the size of Massachuse­tts — as well as 12.3 million hectares in Indonesia.

Longer Life

CPS2’s shorter fronds enable farmers to plant 36 per cent more seedlings per hectare without reducing photosynth­esis or yield quality. Meanwhile, their slower growth can add a decade to the economic life of a plantation, which is typically 25 years, according to Meilina.

“We have been trying to improve yields over the years and at the same time we want to be sustainabl­e,” she said.

Non-government­al environmen­tal organisati­on Greenpeace accused 25 palm oil producers last month of clearing more than 130,000ha of rain forest, including 51,600ha in the Indonesian province of Papua, since 2015.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo ordered his government last month to halt issuing permits for new palm oil plantation­s and the expansion of existing ones for three years, while Malaysia’s government pledged to maintain its forest cover at 50 per cent.

Safer Harvests

CPS2 was capable of producing 35.7 tonnes of oil-palm fruit per hectare, twice the Malaysian national average, said Meilina. What’s more, its shorter stature makes harvesting safer and more efficient.

Rabobank Internatio­nal predicts that palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia, which accounts for about 85 per cent of global supply, will decline after 2022 because of limited land availabili­ty and dropping yields in ageing plantation­s, and if replanting is sluggish in Indonesia.

Ageing Palms

“Ageing palm-oil tree issues have resulted in lower year-on-year monthly Malaysian palm oil yields since May,” said the Dutch bank in a September 28 report.

While the MPOB ramps up commercial production of CPS2 seedlings — which cost RM25 to RM30 apiece, compared with RM15 for convention­al plants — scientists are studying genetic variations that may confer resilience against disease and extreme weather.

“We’re now trying to identify the best material among the CPS2 and look at it at a molecular level,” she said.

 ?? BLOOMBERG PIC ?? Malaysian Palm Oil Board head of breeding and tissue culture unit Meilina Ong Abdullah with the new variety of palms.
BLOOMBERG PIC Malaysian Palm Oil Board head of breeding and tissue culture unit Meilina Ong Abdullah with the new variety of palms.

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