I love seeds, especially those that are sprouting. They bring a warm fuzzy feeling with their promise to become colorful flowers, food and shelter which my basic human instinct reacts well to.
But when it comes to the palm oil seed, there is always a simmering disdain for it. Not so much for the seed itself but in its intensive cultivation in mono-culture plantations in the last twenty years. It's true that palm oil indirectly provides food and shelter but its Kraken-like spread in the rainforest rich countries of Malaysia and Indonesia has left too much destruction in its path.
The Problem With Palm Oil
Industry lobbyists in Malaysia and Indonesia have long defended the booming palm oil plantations in their countries as their rightful path to development and poverty alleviation. The commodities boom in the early 2000s saw an explosion of plantations across both countries as they tried to tap into the demand for "green gold", a phrase used to describe the highly lucrative palm oil business at that time.
Malaysia and Indonesia produce about 85% of the global palm oil supply today as a result of that boom. Images of dead and displaced orangutans, a great ape found only in the two countries caught the imagination of environmental groups and the orangutans quickly became an iconic victim of the palm oil industry.
Those heady days when palm oil was selling at over $1000 a ton are thankfully over. The global demand for vegetable oils including soybean and rapeseed have stagnated, leading to an industry wide slowdown in opening new areas for plantations. As of today, Malaysia has some five million hectares of palm oil planted while Indonesia has approximately ten million hectares.
How Science Can Help Save Forests
Can a super producing palm oil seed save forests in Malaysia or Indonesia? Both countries are looking to double their palm oil production by 2020, which would mean Malaysia would need to plant an additional five million hectares while Indonesia would need to plant an additional ten million hectares. There would be little forests left in these two countries if these goals were to be achieved through the present method of opening more plantations to increase production.
Production yields per hectare, whether palm or soy or coconut oil, must be one of the most important factors in planning for a sustainable future. The palm oil industry has long chased the holy grail of a super seed, one that can produce more oil per hectare of land which would reduce the need to create more plantations.
Malaysia's biggest palm oil company, Sime Darby announced that they have identified a super seed that is capable of doing just that. Seven years after decoding the genome of the palm oil seed, the company is finally introducing the super seed to their plantations. Their research showed this this seed, Genome Select, is capable of producing 15% more oil per hectare than the current average of 4 metric tons per hectare.
15% may not sound very impressive until it's converted into land use. Sime Darby has 350,000 hectares of palm oil plantations in Malaysia. 15% in their case means " 52,500 production hectares" will be added to their production without actually having to plant new plantations. An alternate view would be that 52,500 ha of forests were spared or brown fields returned to nature.
The bigger picture is even more promising if the industry as a whole, used science and technology to meet their goals to double their output by 2020.
Simply put, if Malaysia was to double their output with the current plantation models, the additional five million hectares of new plantations would surely wipe out the most endangered big mammal in Malaysia, the Malayan tiger. The Malaysian Prime Minister recently launched the country's revised National Policy on Biological Diversity and was quoted as saying:
It has clear targets and actions and timelines for implementation and calls for active participation by all stakeholders
As one of the major stakeholders in land use in Malaysia, the palm oil industry can make a huge difference in the survival of the Malayan tiger and elephant. The country's plans for wildlife including the National Tiger Conservation Action Plan (Ntap), National Elephant Conservation Action Plan (Necap), Central Forest Spine Master Plan for Ecological Linkages can succeed if science and technology is used, as in the case of this super seed.