They make millions of babies and sell them

By taking on the role of cupids, scientists match-make oil palm trees to produce high yielding hybrids. OOI TEE CHING finds out how they make millions of babies that mature into 'Dolly Parton trees' populating the agriculture landscape.

NG WOO Jian fans a bunch of plumes that looked like a giant feather duster at a crowd before him at Paloh oil palm estate in Johor. A whiff of fragrant scent wafts through the air.

John Low, the Performance Management And Delivery Unit (Pemandu) director of agriculture, palm oil and rubber projects, who was among the crowd of visitors, takes a closer sniff. "It smells like five spice powder."

"That, my friends, is the smell of male pollens from the oil palm tree," Ng said. He shakes the plumes at the crowd again. With a knowing smile, he said, "And now, I'm going to show you how we make millions of babies at our secret garden."

At Applied Agricultural Resources Sdn Bhd (AAR), seed production manager Ng and his team diligently work on thousands of mother palms to perfect Malaysia's top cash crop with the latest breeding know-how.

Just as Ng ushers the crowd to a mother palm, a research assistant propels herself up the tree by stepping on a fish-bone ladder resting on its trunk.

She then hoists and straddles herself unto one of the palm fronds with a safety harness fastened to another frond. She proceeded to slip a plastic bag over a flowering bunch, seal it tightly with a double knot and hand puffs the desired male pollens into the bag.

Ng said, "The plastic bag cover prevents weevils from reaching the nice-smelling female flowers and accidentally pollinating it with other male pollens we do not want. When we choose to breed the Dura X Pisifera (DXP) species, we don't want any anak luar nikah. So, in this instance, the bag behaves like a condom," he added.

In the last 50 years, crop scientists have been breeding the DXP hybrid because this species is able to bear very big fruit bunches. As time goes by, many oil palm planters affectionately refer the DXP hybrid as "the Dolly Parton type" because like its namesake yields voluptuous fruit bunches.

Today, Malaysia's five million hectares of oil palm landscape is populated by the Dolly Parton standard planting materials.

Meanwhile, back at Ijok, Selangor, AAR owns the world's largest oil palm tissue culture laboratory. The facility at Tuan Mee estate produces 1.5 million clonal palms per year.

In a separate interview with Business Times, Boustead Holdings Bhd deputy chairman and group managing director Tan Sri Lodin Wok Kamaruddin said: "Through such painstaking research and development effort initiated decades ago, we can now reap the benefits of high yielding clonal palms."

"This is how Malaysia is able to feed the world with more cooking oil, and at the same time, safeguard biodiversity," he said.

Boustead, the flagship investment arm of the Armed Forces Pension Fund (Lembaga Tabung Angkatan Tentera), jointly owns AAR with Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd.

In response to a growing world population in the next decade, Lodin noted the need to produce more food on the same piece of land.

"I'm convinced that we can meet the future of the world's cooking oil needs by developing better oil palm seeds and planting methods. These are all linked to sustainable agriculture," he said.

Since 1986, AAR and other seed producers in the country have been contributing to the replanting of unproductive trees, so as to raise the national oil palm yield. Through biotechnology advancement, they are able to increase yield and improve disease resistance.

In the 1960s, Lodin explained, the mindset was to keep superior planting materials for local oil palm planters. Fifty years on, the global scenario has changed. 

"The time has come for us to leverage on uncharted potentials outside Malaysia. If we don't liberalise now, we'll be left behind," he said.

Lodin highlighted that oil palm seed exports can be a significant income earner for the country as it fetches a 50 per cent premium in the overseas market.

In total, the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) statistics show seed companies churn out some 80 million oil palm seeds every year, of which 50 million are supplied to local planters. The remaining 30 million are sold to Malaysian planters with oil palm estates abroad.

Established seed producers like AAR reserved a sizable portion of seeds for smallholders in Malaysia, but they face a dilemma.

Oil palm seeds only has a shelf life of two years. If not sold within that time span, they have to be destroyed. This wastage is especially evident when high palm oil prices cause local planters to delay replanting activities and therefore, their purchase of germinated seeds.

"Apart from waiver of export restriction on seeds sales, we also hope to see MPOB rope in seed producers from the private sector when sourcing for new genetic materials from West Africa and Latin America for seed breeding," Lodin said, adding that such measures would help propel Malaysia to become the world's trading hub for superior oil palm seeds.

3 Responses to They make millions of babies and sell them

  1. Hi Amos, Thank you for your feedback on the incorrect spelling of species. You're right. We've made the changes.

  2. Is Boustead a real efficient group?
    AAR is more of KLK than Boustead?
    What is the average yield and cost of Boustead now as compared
    to the other industry players?

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