Remodelling the most hated crop in the world


Palm oil is an item that evokes images of human rights violations, mass deforestation, and dying orangutans. In Malaysia and Indonesia, where over 85% of palm oil comes from, more than sixteen million hectares of rain forest land, old rubber plantations, and peat bogs have become conventional palm oil farms. There does not exist a sign of this industry slowing.

In spite of possessing a negative reputation, Palm oil remains the most productive crop worldwide. Canola oilseed produces a sixth of oil per hectare, and soya bean provides a tenth. Palm oil is not producing the maximum yields per plant, though. The main problem being that there exist epigenetic and genetic variables which cause the palms to underproduce. Since these trees mature slowly, growers do not have an idea for three to four years if these trees will be star performers or wood without worth.

At this stage, Orion comes in. Technicians from Orion processes the greenery disc from the plants and sends out a report on the quality of the palms. Lakey, a specialist, predicts that if this test is carried out on a large scale, the industry revenue could rise by over four billion USD per year. This income could increase without expanding the plantations. More can come from the same land and reduce deforestation.

Scientist hail Orion for applying lengthy time in researching oil palm genetics in the industry. However, the grants of this company do not guarantee bearing fruits because of the current political corruption, inadequate regulations and significant inertia among smallholding farmers that have 40% stake in oil palm production.

Unless a better national system is in place for providing training, finances and technical assistance, this science will not have the intended impact. Other experts worry that there will be more harm if the productivity of these trees is boosted.

These plantations carpet the south, north and east landscapes of Kuala Lumpur. They look lush and tidy from above but very muddy from the ground and hilly and far from Orion’s lab sterility. People working here trudge in the rows while hoisting poles into the canopies for picking the spiky fruits. They are then taken to the main roads for loading onto trucks for transportation.

Slicing of these golf-ball-sized fruits reveals the orange mesocarp that generates oil for cooking and processing food. The brown shell separates the white palm kernel and the mesocarp. Seed oil is used in the production of soaps, detergents, and cosmetics.

Even though these plants look similar, there exist three different seed types that produce different oil amounts. These seeds are pisifera, tenera, and dura. Dura has thick shelled fruits but minimal oil. Pisifera seeds usually abort when developing but produce shell-less fruits. Tenera seeds, on the other hand, a cross breed of dura and pisifera, produces thin shell fruits with copious oil.

Breeding consumes so much time and does not promise production of the best seeds. When breeding starts, cell extracts from the stems are cloned in lab dishes, and new fruit types are produced. The initially cloned fruits did not have shape and oil. Coming up with the best breed of the oil palm has taken over forty years of cloning. Once the right DNA was identified for breeding, researchers have now created an impact in this industry. Growers can now produce more than eighteen million oil tons per year.