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The oil palm tree has been the bedrock of Malaysia’s economy, socio-development, political stability and ability to innovate.

As we mark the centenary of its cultivation this year, we look back at 10 milestones to understand the challenges and efforts that have gone into producing palm oil.

As a sustainable crop, the oil palm plays a critical role in helping to feed more than three billion people in over 150 countries.

Feeding an additional two billion people by 2050 with limited arable land will be no small task.

The oil palm is eight to 10 times more productive than other major oilseed crops; highly efficient with a high output-to-input energy ratio; and extremely versatile in its uses, including the biomass waste generated.

In 2016, Malaysia produced 29.4% of the global palm oil output on a mere 0.1% of global agricultural land. Malaysian palm oil is renowned for its high quality and usability.

With improvements in processing technologies, it can be easily tailored to meet specifications of end-users. It is highly sought after for various applications in food and non-food industries, making it a true global product.

On May 18 2017, a special event was held at Tennamaram Estate, Batang Berjuntai, Selangor, where it all began, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Malaysian Palm Oil.

The first part of the series covers FIVE milestones; from 1917, where the first commercial oil palm plantation was established, to 1980, where Malaysia defeated the 'anti-tropical oil campaign'.

Milestone #1: 1917

Then-Malaya’s first commercial oil palm plantation was established at Tennamaram Estate in Batang Berjuntai, Selangor.

The oil palm (Elaeis Guineensis) is indigenous to West Africa, where it is found in the region between Angola and Gambia. It was introduced to Southeast Asia when planted at the Bogor Botanical Garden, Indonesia, in 1848.

In the 1870s, Malaya received its first batch of oil palm from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England; this was planted at the Singapore Botanic Garden. Its appearance made it suitable for use as an ornamental plant; soon, the tree became a common sight along major roads, in front of government buildings and in public parks.

The 19th century Industrial Revolution in Europe prompted many young entrepreneurs, including a young Frenchman Henri Fauconnier, to travel to the Far East to make their fortunes. In 1905, Fauconnier arrived in Malaya and months later established a coffee plantation with his friends in Rantau Panjang, Selangor.

In 1911, he visited Andrien Hallet’s oil palm development in the Deli region of Sumatra and was impressed. He purchased some oil palm seeds from Hallet and brought them back for experimentation at his estate.

When rubber and coffee prices began depreciating, he returned to Sumatra in 1912 to obtain more oil palm seeds. He planted these at Tennamaram Estate in Batang Berjuntai, Selangor, in 1917. This first commercial oil palm estate laid the foundation for the development of Malaysia’s palm oil industry.

Milestone #2: 1961

Large-scale planting of oil palm by Malaysia’s Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) became a successful model as a poverty-eradication programme for developing countries.

After Malaysia gained Independence in 1957, the government faced a huge challenge in redistributing economic wealth among the people. While those in urban areas enjoyed a good quality of life, there was rampant poverty in rural areas. Expansion of agriculture was considered a major priority to bridge the gap and improve the livelihood of the rural poor. The government established FELDA to take on that formidable challenge through a policy of providing ‘land for the landless, jobs for the jobless’.

Initially, the small farmer land development scheme involved rubber cultivation, but progress was slow and the price was falling. The crucial need for crop diversification was soon realised – for an alternative cash crop that would be more viable and give faster return on investments.

It was not until the oil palm was introduced in 1961 to settlers at the FELDA Taib Andak scheme that the pace of land development picked up. Each settler received eight acres planted with oil palm, two acres of subsidiary crops, usually fruit trees, and a house on a quarter-acre lot. By 1990, a total of 112,635 rural poor, of whom 80% were dependent on the oil palm, had found employment in FELDA schemes. Today, FELDA is a major player in the global oils and fats industry, accounting for more than 0.7 million ha of the oil palm planted area; and three million tonnes of crude palm oil production, the highest in the world.

Since 1990, FELDA has diversified to other economic ventures and has established several private corporate entities. The FELDA programme has since been acknowledged by the United Nations and the World Bank as a successful model of poverty alleviation for developing countries.

Milestone #3: 1962

The formation of the Oil Palm Genetics Laboratory consortium laid the foundations for Malaysia to become a global R&D centre.

Research has been an integral part of the development of the oil palm industry in Malaysia. In the early period, it was driven mainly by foreign-owned plantations and the Department of Agriculture (DoA). In the early years, the focus was on breeding, processing and oil palm productivity, with significant progress being achieved before World War II. The tempo was then stepped up, stimulated by falling commodity prices and escalating production costs. Between the 1950s and 1960s, plantation group Socfin invested significantly in research, resulting in its estates becoming among the most efficient in the country. Guthrie and Harrisons & Crosfield also opened a new research station in Seremban and Banting respectively.

When the DoA initiated an exchange programme with West African economies in the 1960s, Guthrie, Harrison & Crosfield and others came together to form the Oil Palm Genetics Laboratory consortium in 1962, to carry out joint research into oil palm breeding, genetics and crop physiology. The investment brought about spectacular results in pest management, fertiliser utilisation, improved planting materials, labour productivity, processing efficiency and oil quality.

The research expanded when the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute was established in 1969, taking over the mandate for oil palm research from the DoA. This was accelerated by the establishment of Universiti Pertanian Malaysia in 1973, the Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia (PORIM) in 1979 and the Malaysian Palm Oil Board – a merger of PORIM and the Palm Oil Registration and Licensing Authority – in 1998.

Through the work of these institutions and private entities, Malaysia became a global R&D centre for oil palm research, particularly in the fields of agronomy, disease management, good agricultural practices, genome, biodiesel, utilisation of palm biomass, food and non-food applications and sustainability standards.

Milestone #4: 1981

The introduction of weevils to the oil palm pollination process significantly accelerated Malaysia’s palm oil production.

Prior to 1981, yield of oil palm fruit bunches in Malaysia was very low. Hand-assisted pollination became necessary to increase the yield, but this was laborious and costly. The introduction of Elaeidobius kamerunicus weevils, a pollinating insect from Cameroon, at Mamor Estate in Kluang on Feb 21, 1981 was a turning point for the Malaysian oil palm industry. It came about because of a refusal to accept the established norm – that oil palm fruits could only be wind-pollinated.

With research assistance from the Commonwealth Institute of Biological Control, Elaeidobius kamerunicus was identified as the most efficient insect pollinator of oil palm due to its ability to pollinate in wet and dry seasons and carry more pollen. However, there were concerns that the weevil could also become a pest to other local crops. After a series of experimentation, a release permit was issued and Elaeidobius kamerunicus was finally introduced in Malaysia.

Its introduction into plantations raised the yield of oil palm fruit bunches per hectare dramatically. A year after its introduction, Malaysia recorded an increase of 0.4 million tonnes of palm oil and 0.3 million tonnes of kernels. Since then, the production of palm oil and kernels has continued to climb, saving the industry a cumulative total of more than RM44 billion in manual pollination costs to date.

Milestone #5: 1980s

Using scientific evidence, Malaysia successfully defeated the ‘anti-tropical oil’ campaign which manipulated the perception that saturated fat content in palm oil was harmful to health.

In the 1980s, Malaysia’s palm oil industry came under attack when the public became alarmed by a concerted campaign communicating that food products containing tropical oils were linked to increased risk of coronary heart disease (CHD).

The campaign came about at a time when tropical oils were making inroads into the US soybean oil market as an alternative vegetable oil. It was built on the realisation that tropical oils are higher in saturated fats – then theoretically associated with the risk of CHD. The campaign forced food manufacturers to remove tropical oils, including palm oil, from their products and to replace them with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Ironically, this was to lead to an increased intake of harmful trans fats, which later became the target of the same advocacy groups.

In response, the Malaysian government, through PORIM, intensified research on palm oil nutrition and its effects on health. A number of collaborative studies with foreign institutions were also conducted independently. Interestingly, the results of these scientific studies discovered that palm oil, despite its relatively high degree of saturation, is nutritious and exhibits several health attributes. These revelations effectively uncovered the truth about palm oil, debunked the allegations made against it and later led to the demise of the ‘anti-tropical oil’ campaign.

Palm oil is deemed a suitable replacement for partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. It is recognised by the WHO/FAO as wholesome and nutritious for human consumption. It is also the world’s most popular vegetable oil, consumed by more than three billion people in more than 150 countries.

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