Oil Palm Smallholders Urged to Adopt Tech to Increase Yield — Plantation Think Tank


The oil palm industry, especially the half million smallholders, need to do more for their oil palm cultivation business despite working with lower plantation acreage to earn a better living, and this can be done through mechanisation and adoption of technology, according to a plantation industry think tank.


Sharing their views on the second day of the Future-Proofed Palm Oil (FPPO) 2020 International Summit and Exhibition, the eight panelists featured today believed that the smallholders cannot move away but need to change, in order to better manage their field and increase their yields.


“They don’t need to spend much money to get the most sophisticated devices but it's sufficient to get a basic smartphone to monitor the working conditions through the cell-phones to take pictures of their crop, and monitor the yield, water and fertiliser applications.


“They need to keep tabs on what is going on in their plantations,” PT e-Komoditi Solution chief executive officer Ferron Haryanto said.


Concurring with his views, Shih Shen Wong, regional sales manager, Southeast Asia, Planet Labs Inc. said the disruption brought by the new technology is available for planters to apply in their oil palm field and to increase yields.


“This is crucial since Malaysia has pledged to cap its total planted area at 6.5 million hectares by 2023, in a move to dispel the claim that the expansion of oil palm plantations has led to deforestation,” he said.


Shih said the issue can be resolved by adopting artificial intelligence and blockchain technology (distributed ledger for traceability).


Meanwhile, on increasing the yield, Malaysian Palm Oil Board senior principal research officer and head of Breeding and Tissue Culture Unit Dr Meilina Ong-Abdullah said the board is working to fast-track breeding via the cloning of palms with special traits and breeds that are high in carotene and vitamin E.


However, she said there will be some challenges — mainly the higher cost derived by the strategy and concerns on who would bear the cost — even though there is a huge potential in increasing yields and boosting income.


“There must be a policy change to support this initiative. The possible solutions for clonal adoption may include policy directive by the government, a potential business model and a shared prosperity model.


“For the policy directive, in order to encourage planting of clones, at least 10% of clonal materials need to be incorporated in replanting programmes and clonal producers should allocate five- to 10% of their production for smallholders or any other parties as one of their corporate social responsibilities,” she explained.


Another panellist had proposed increasing yield by integrating the oil palm industry with Industry 4.0 and industrial biotechnology, which also known as Industry X.


“Industry X could unlock hidden yields without hectarage expansion. Biotechnology is a proven technology for a more efficient and environmentally-friendly palm oil milling process, going forward.


“It can also enable palm oil producers to process waste into wealth as a biodiesel source. The palm oil milling industry is still evolving and to further unfold improvements require the intervention of many including scientists and engineers,” said Hong Wai Onn, honorary secretary, IChemE in Malaysia Board and chair of IChemE Palm Oil Processing Special Interest Group.


Besides increasing yields, the think tank also believed that the palm oil milling technology needs to evolve.


“Machinery and equipment operating conditions at palm oil mills are also dominant factors affecting oil loss and oil extraction rate (OER).


“Therefore, improvement in machine operation is foreseen to be a possible way to increase the OER which can also help reduce the palm oil mill losses,” said Prof Robiah Yunus, director of the Institute of Plantation Studies and professor, Biobased Products and Technology Research Group, Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, Universiti Putra Malaysia.


Research has found that by 2050, the world would require 156 million tonnes of crude palm oil from the 65 million tonnes produced in 2019.


Considering the limitation to meet the palm oil market demand due to land limitation and labour shortage, it is therefore critical for the industry to increase yield through modernisation and research and development, Robiah said.


The FPPO 2020 is a four-day event that began yesterday, aimed at addressing palm oil-related issues and recommending solutions through discussions on market, policies, strategies, technologies and innovations.