Creme de la creme of oil palm seeds

DESIGNER SEEDS: When it comes to planting oil palms, the old adage that ‘cheap things are no good and good things are not cheap’ holds true. Applied Agricultural Resources Sdn Bhd, a forerunner in oil palm breeding, tells OOI TEE CHING the effort and time that goes to producing high-quality seeds.


TO the uninitiated, Tan Cheng Chua's job of selling oil palm seeds to farmers may seem redundant. After all, why should farmers spend extra money to buy designer seeds when they can collect them from existing fields?

The answer lies in genetics. Seeds gathered from existing oil palm fields, according to the natural laws of heredity, will not yield as many fruits as the parent trees. 

The way in which dominant traits of select oil palm trees are passed from one generation to the next is closely studied by breeders at Applied Agricultural Resources Sdn Bhd (AAR).

Seed producer AAR advises more than 350,000ha of oil palm and rubber estates in Malaysia and Indonesia. It is an equal joint venture between Boustead Holdings Bhd and Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd (KLK).


In an interview with Business Times, AAR head of agricultural products Tan said seed choice is crucial in oil palm planting. 

"Oil palm planting is actually a very capital-intensive venture. My job is to ensure farmers get to reap the best returns on their investments. That's because once you sink the seeds into the ground, they will most likely stay there for the next 25 years," he said.

In his line of work, Tan had, on several occasions, cautioned newcomers to the industry that planting of oil palm seeds gathered from existing estates suffer from low yields, no matter how many bags of fertiliser are applied to the trees.

The oil palm sector, as one of the biggest foreign exchange earners for Malaysia, is one that is heavily invested with research money. For more than 50 years, scientists have been looking at ways to breed oil palm trees that produce good harvest.

As early as in the 1960s, crop scientists introduced the hybrid called the Dura X Pisifera (DXP) because this species is able to bear very big fruit bunches. Many oil palm planters affectionately refer to the DXP hybrid as "the Dolly Parton type" because like its namesake, it yields voluptuous fruit bunches.

In the 1980s, some tree breeders realised that one of the problems of big bunches is that the inner fruitlets do not have space to develop fully. In smaller bunches, however, the inner fruitlets have a greater chance to develop and ripen more evenly. Therefore, for the same weight, smaller bunches yield more oil.

"Bigger is not always better," Tan said.

That was when AAR breeders focused on producing trees that are of dwarf stature for easy harvesting and high oil yield in the fruit bunches.

Compared with the Dolly Parton standard, Tan highlighted that the dwarf-like AA Hybrida 1S has more, albeit smaller, fruit bunches. It also has higher oil yields. 

AAR sells these designer seeds at RM2.70 each, a premium to the price of the average Dolly Parton variant. 

At prime fruit-bearing age, AAR's semi-clonal seedlings, grown under good management and environment, are capable of producing more than 30 tonnes of fresh fruit bunches with over 23 per cent oil extraction rate. That works out to be about seven tonnes of oil per hectare in a year, almost two times higher than the country's average yield.

"The AA Hybrida 1S is 'the cream of the cream' as it can yield 20 per cent more oil than the previous-generation Dolly Partons," Tan said, adding "our semi-clonal seed production technology ensures consistent quality in every seed we produce".

AAR had started breeding the hybrids on experimental plots in the last three decades. Indeed, tree breeding is a meticulous and time-consuming labour of love. 

To speed up the process, AAR leverages on tissue culture to quickly grow large amounts of uniform, disease-free plant tissue.

Tan said the most widely recognised benefit of tissue culture is high uniformity in the resultant clones. Thus, tissue culture is an ideal method to bump up supply of elite clones.

Over in Ijok, Selangor, AAR owns the world's largest and most progressive oil palm tissue culture laboratory. Tissue culturists carry out cloning where shoots of the chosen oil palm trees are spliced, cultured and grown in test tubes. These shoots grow up to be identical to the "parent" tree.

The advantages of tree cloning are clear, Tan said. "It is much easier to manage and harvest oil palms if the trees behave uniformly". 

Today, AAR's facility at Tuan Mee estate is capable of churning out 1.5 million clonal palms per year. Tan said his company makes use of its tissue culture expertise to multiply its elite mother palms to produce the AA Hybrida 1S which they have been selling to the farmers for over five years now. 

His team of breeders is now working on the AA Hybrida 2 that will see a further 25 per cent improvement in oil yield. It is scheduled to be launched in 2015.

Also present at the interview was AAR plant breeder Wong Choo Kien. 

It is often stated that clonal plantations reduce genetic diversity. In response, Wong said this is a generalised view, which need not always be true. 

"Near clonal plantations actually provide a tool to choose genetic diversity at will. On the other hand, when a seedling material is used, the genetic diversity is essentially left to chance," he said.

When asked on the outlook for the medium term, Wong noted AAR's palm breeding plan is to produce elite planting materials using marker assisted genome-wide selected palms. This, he said, will lead to a speedier and more precise prediction of superior parents for seed production.