MALAYSIA’S commitment to meet international standards of sustainability is undoubtable, by being the first country to produce and export certified sustainable palm oil since 2018.
In recognition of the sensitivity and importance of maintaining over 50 per cent biodiverse tropical rainforests, the Malaysian oil palm industry spearheaded the certification standards by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2004.
To ensure that oil palm is cultivated in the least damaging way possible even for smallholders, a national level sustainable certification standard, the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) was also established in December 2014.
As of Feb 28, this year 1.51 million hectares (25.8 per cent) of the total 5.85 million ha are MSPO-certified, with the highest certified area and number of mills in Sarawak and Sabah, followed by Johor.
The Malaysian Palm Oil Certification Council (MPOCC) has put in much effort to raise awareness among oil palm planters on the mandatory MSPO certification in line with the International Sustainability & Carbon
Certification (ISCC) by the end of 2019. With the MSPO certification covering auditing and training being free for smallholders, there should be no reason for not getting certified.
While regulations and policies are in place to safeguard the industry and consumers, we must not neglect the welfare of smallholders who represent 40 per cent of the Malaysian oil palm industry. A way forward could be the consolidation of independent smallholders into cooperatives to lower production cost with collective benefits from “economies of scale” and more efficient management.
This will require a mindset change among smallholders, especially the younger generation, to rise to the challenge of refining agricultural practices with biofertilisers, technological adoption and by replanting unproductive palms for improved yield.
During the early years of oil palm replantation, smallholders can opt for intercropping with cash crops, such as sweet potato, pineapple, cocoa, durian or coconut, to bring in side income apart from reducing the cost of weeding.
Sustainable palm oil production also involves good practices at the mills and bio-refinery plants to minimise wastage from palm oil extraction. Innovative utilisation of palm oil mill (POM) biomass waste provides renewable energy for power generation and will help mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Furthermore, a valuable fine chemical of fatty acid for the perfume industry can be recovered from palm sludge oil, a by-product of POM. Another revolutionary method allows recovery of valuable antioxidants from water extraction of oil palm phenolics. This could propel Malaysia to become the world’s largest producer of phenolics from aqueous POM waste for the multibillion-dollar nutraceutical industry.
On the other hand, the creation of other value-added products especially oleochemicals will create greater revenue for the palm oil industry. Oleochemicals derived from living organisms are renewable and an environment-friendly alternative to petrochemicals. Their usages are widespread in consumer products like detergents, soaps, cosmetics and personal care items.
We are proud that Malaysia is an international leader in oil palm research with the largest collection of oil palm germplasm from decades of work. Research is becoming ever more important with stagnant yields, land scarcity, labour shortage and climate change affecting us.
Conventional crop breeding can now be accelerated by using genetic marker assisted breeding for plants with greater yields or higher disease resistance.
Since the announcement of oil palm genome in 2013 by a group of Malaysian researchers, genomics-based technology has been successfully applied in the industry.
The breakthrough discoveries include the identification of genes responsible for the fruit form (SHELL), colour (VIRESCENS), abnormality of plantlets derived from tissue culture (MANTLED), and oil production (DGAT).
These have been translated into practical applications via diagnostic kits for early selection of desired planting materials with greater efficiency in breeding and tissue culture.
The use of quality planting materials and good agronomic practices will potentially double or triple the oil palm yield from an average of three to four tonnes per ha to 13 tonnes per ha. This will help overcome the scarcity of arable land and stop further expansion of plantation into virgin rainforest or peatland.
Technology-driven precision agriculture with Internet of Things (IoT), such as wireless sensors, GPS-enabled machinery, and drone technology, will be useful to further improve palm oil yields during this convergent era of the fourth industrial revolution (IR4). An integrated monitoring system and automation will better inform plantation management, such as harvesting time, irrigation, pest control and application of agrochemicals.
Mechanisation with robotics will further alleviate dependency on foreign labour, which is currently a greater concern in the Malaysian oil palm industry than plantation area expansion.
The local workforce needs to be trained with advanced skills for increased productivity through mechanisation in replacement of manual labour. Millions of ringgit can be saved if oil palm fruits can be harvested on time.
Malaysian oil palm has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1917 at Tennamaram Estate, Bestari Jaya, Selangor by Frenchman Henri Fauconnier. Ironically, this industry which involves nearly 600,000 livelihoods in Malaysia is currently under attack by the new European policy.
For the Malaysian oil palm industry to stay strong in the competitive vegetable oil market, it must always strive towards quality and sustainable palm oil against its bad publicity over health and environmental issues.
The recent government campaign on “Sayangi Sawitku” or “Love my Palm Oil” is timely. This extensive campaign is important for clarifying any misinformation regarding oil palm to instil confidence and love for local palm oil across all levels of society.
Through combined efforts of government initiatives to ensure responsible farming practices and adoption of technological advancement, hopefully a green “five-star” palm oil can be achieved with Malaysian quality assurance to meet increasing global demand.
The writer is an Associate Professor and a leader of Plant Functional Genomics Research Group at the Institute of Systems Biology, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia