Private industry and the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB), a Malaysian government research institute, are joining forces to increase oil palm production by using technology to identify the highest yielding trees. This collaborative and brilliant use of science was highlighted in this article in the journal Nature.

The article highlights the scientific advances that may help revolutionize an industry whose reputation has been tattered despite its impressive productivity records. American Nathan Lakey is a biochemist and chief executive at Malaysia-based Orion Biosains. The Nature article focused on his company’s strategic genetic testing of oil palm trees – and how it helps plantation owners increase yield without using more land. The Malaysia palm oil industry, which produces 31 percent of the world’s palm oil, was highlighted in the article for its impressive average yield, as well as its policies which support independent family farmers.

Palm oil production compared to other oils
Palm oil is widely used around the world, yet its production is routinely maligned by some vocal environmentalists. The article states, “Despite its bad reputation, oil palm is the most productive oil crop in the world. Oilseed rape (canola) currently produces only about one-sixth of the oil per hectare — soya bean only one-tenth.” Despite these impressive numbers, the Malaysian oil palm industry strives to increase yield (production per hectare) to meet the world’s growing demand for oil.

Orion’s cutting-edge technology helps save resources
On oil palm plantations, some trees are top producers and others under-perform. But because the trees mature slowly, growers typically can’t tell the difference until three to four years after planting. Once mature, oil palm trees produce fruit for 20 to 30 years.

Orion’s lab technicians, however, can genetically test a small circle of an oil palm seedling’s leaf to determine if the mature tree will be high yielding. From the article, “Lakey predicts that, if adopted on a large scale, the test could raise industry revenue by about $4 billion (US) per year. And, importantly, it could do so without expanding plantations. ‘We can get more oil for an equivalent area of land — this could help take the pressure off deforestation,’ Lakey says.”

Malaysia’s palm oil industry is primed for continued success
Malaysia produces nearly one-third of the world’s palm oil. For decades, the amount of oil produced per hectare in Malaysia has been higher than Indonesia, which produces 55 percent of the world’s palm oil. The article states, “In theory, growers can squeeze as much as 18 tonnes of oil in a year from one hectare of oil palm, but currently they are attaining only about 4 tonnes per year on average.” Family farmers, called smallholders, typically perform the worst. While reaching these independent growers may be difficult in some countries, in Malaysia members of this important group – who tend 40 percent of the country’s palm-planted areas – receive their planting material from MPOB-validated breeders. This ensures that Malaysian smallholders will have access to the highest quality seedlings when it is time to replant.