Fruitful yield from designer seeds

In the last five decades, mechanisation of oil palm fruit harvesting remained largely unsuccessful. As a result, the industry had been working on the trees - to make them easier to harvest and to have more oil. OOI TEE CHING interviews a tree whisperer and an industry veteran.

Malaysia is the world's second largest palm oil producer after Indonesia and the latest data reveal a worrying trend; since 2010, palm oil output growth is stagnating at 2 per cent.

The Malaysian Palm Oil Board predicts that this year, the country's palm oil output will continue to expand by 2 per cent to 20.1 million tonnes.

Assuming this amount of oil is gathered across 5.5 million hectares, this year's yield will only total 3.7 tonnes per hectare in a year. Many planters say this is due to shortage of harvesters.

While the search for the best mechanisation system continues, Malaysian crop scientists are making some headway in raising tree productivity.

In the past, as oil palm trees grew taller and taller, planters use very long poles to harvest the fruit bunches. This got many crop scientists thinking. Why not breed shorter palms that bear very big fruit bunches?

So in the 1960s, crop scientists introduced the hybrid called the Dura X Pisifera (DXP) as the standard planting material. 

As time goes by, many in the industry affectionately referred the DXP hybrid as "the Dolly Parton type." Like its namesake, these trees are very short and 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.

This is when, Applied Agricultural Resources Sdn Bhd (AAR), an equal joint venture between Boustead Holdings Bhd and Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd (KLK), made a conscious decision to breed trees that are of dwarf stature for easy harvesting and high oil yield in the fruit bunches.

AAR is one of the 10 licensed seed producers in the country, contributing to the replanting of unproductive trees so as to raise the national oil palm yield. Indeed, the oil palm sector, as one of the biggest foreign exchange earners for Malaysia, is one that is heavily invested with research money. 

According to MPOB, some 50 million germinated seeds are planted by farmers every year. Most of the replanting of old trees have been carried out in Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia while new plantings are undertaken in Sarawak.

At AAR, plant breeder Wong Choo Kien and his team diligently work on thousands of mother palms to perfect Malaysia's top cash crop with the latest breeding know-how. He always advise planters to buy and plant designer seeds so that they are assured of high oil yielding oil palms.

Just like how mobile phone manufacturers come up with better versions, Wong said every batch of seeds produced by tree breeders is an improved version of the earlier.

He explained that seed selection is crucial in oil palm planting because those who use seeds gathered from existing estates suffer from low yields no matter how many bags of fertiliser are applied to the trees.

The next set of trees are those that could significantly improve the industry further. Not only are these trees easier to harvest, they will also yield 20 per cent more oil from the current batch.

Wong confirmed the AA Hybrida II is slated for introduction to parent companies Boustead Plantations and KLK Group in the middle of this year.

His team is using the semi-clonal strategy to step up seed production while maintaining key qualities like the dwarf stature of the tree and high oil yield in the fruit bunches. "Our semi-clonal seed production technology ensures clients get consistent quality in every seed they buy from AAR," he said.

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

In delivering the designer seeds, AAR goes the extra mile to ensure seedlings' authenticity by using a new laser tattooing technology and pre-agreed codes with its clients. 

At prime fruit-bearing age, AAR's semi-clonal planting materials, 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.

During a tour around the Paloh seed garden in Johor recently, planters witnessed firsthand how AAR scientists match-make oil palm trees, working daily to perfect Malaysia's top cash crop with the latest breeding technology. Seed buyers are coming from as far as Sri Lanka.

Just as Wong ushered the crowd to a mother palm, a research assistant propeled himself up the tree by stepping on a fish-bone ladder resting on its trunk. He hoisted and straddled himself unto one of the palm fronds with a safety harness fastened to another frond.

He proceeded to slip a terylene bag over a flowering bunch, sealed it tightly with a double knot and hand puffed the desired male pollens into the bag. Wong said, "The bag cover prevents weevils from reaching the nice-smelling female flowers and accidentally pollinating it with other male pollens we do not want."

In a separate interview, Boustead Plantations chief operating officer Chow Kok Choy expressed the need to produce more food on the same piece of land in response to a growing world population.

He said, "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." 

Chow highlighted the AAR dwarf planting materials meant that more trees can be planted on the same plot of land. It allows for a higher density of 160 trees in one hectare compared with the current standard of 136.

High density planting and usage of semi-clonal materials will enable AAR's parents Boustead and KLK to get better oil yields -- consistently.

“Todate, we have 14,000ha planted with ramets, semi-clonal and high density planting materials. With more optimal fertiliser application, these super-trees can help raise yields at our estates to that above the industry average of 20.62 per cent,” Chow said.