Oil palm cultivation and related issues | Daily News

Oil palm cultivation and related issues

The main objection to the cultivation of oil palm by the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) and several other environmentalists is its purported excessive consumption of water, leading to the drying of wells and streams.

The CEA has based its arguments on the per tree evapotranspiration (ET) of rubber and oil palm. It has pointed out that a mature rubber tree transpires only about 63 litres of water per day, whereas an oil palm tree transpires 249 litres. However, scientifically, ET should be measured on per unit area basis and not per plant. The recommended planting density of rubber is 520 trees per hectare while that of oil palm is only 143, implying that the corresponding rates of ET should be 32,760 and 35,607 litre per hectare respectively, a difference of a mere 8.6 percent. Can such a small difference in ET cause such a vast impact on the drying of water sources?

The whole country (wet zone) has yet less than 10,000ha of oil palm and the proposal is merely to increase it to 20,000ha. The increasing water consumption over the years with increasing population and global warming-related weather changes are perhaps the reason for the phenomenon. Even in non-oil palm cultivated areas of the wet zone, instances of drying of streams and wells are not uncommon.

Inaccurate observations

Of some 15 observations in a CEA report, the majority are baseless. One such observation is that growing oil palm on slopes causes excessive erosion. Like rubber, oil palm plants are built along contours in platforms and the soil is usually well protected with cover crops.

Compared to tea where the average soil loss during land preparation for replanting is over 250 tonnes/ha, and soil loss continues through its lifecycle, the losses with rubber and oil palm cultivation are comparatively small. It is also reported that oil palm causes soil compaction. This contention is not supported by research evidence in Sri Lanka and is unlikely to be more than for rubber.

The report also states that there is excessive use of pesticides and fertilisers in oil palm, the latter being eight to ten times that of rubber. These are also faulty. The use of pesticide is no greater than compared to other plantation crops and fertiliser use is only about double that of rubber. Being a highly productive crop, high nutrient demand is to be expected like in tea.

Concern has also been raised about waste material and its disposal in the industry. Much of the carbonic waste is used for generating energy which is used in oil palm processing and there is satisfactory effluent disposal with pollution risk being no greater than with rubber effluent disposal. It has also been reported that oil palm stems go waste. Though the stems of oil palm are not utilised in Sri Lanka at present, countries like Malaysia where vast extents are under oil palm obtain many economic uses from them.

Another naive claim is that oil palm is a threat to biodiversity in that fruits dispersed by animals generate seedlings which are difficult to control. The fruits are usually exhaustively collected and a few stray ones in the fields are dispersed by animals which can easily be weeded out.

An independent team of experts should be appointed for appraisal of the CEA report and action taken based on its findings.

Overgrowing seedlings

Following Cabinet approval, a large stock of imported hybrid seeds costing Rs. 500 million has been planted in nurseries and indecision is delaying their field planting. It appears that the seedlings are now overgrown and unless planted soon, will go waste.

Palm oil, the global vegetable oil

Palm oil supplies 42.3 percent of the global vegetable oil demand utilising only 14.8 million hectares whereas the soy oil which takes second place produces only 29.8 percent of the demand, but utilises as much as 103.8 million hectares. It is the most productive vegetable oil producer, producing, on average, about four tonnes/ha/year. Our annual vegetable oil demand is about 180,000 tonnes, but we produce only 53,000 tonnes of coconut oil and 18,000 tonnes of palm oil, the balance now being imported mostly as palm oil.

One of the naive recommendations of the CEA is to expand the coconut cultivation to meet the national oil demand. Coconut Research Institute (CRI) studies show that the potential for expansion of coconut in the intermediate and dry zones is very limited for various reasons. One possibility, however, is to expand its cultivation in the wet zone as a shade crop in tea.

It is regrettable that the CEA did not consult the CRI as to the potential for the expansion of coconut oil production before making the recommendation. The global coconut oil demand is increasing especially as virgin coconut oil and coconut has other diversified uses. Today, coconut oil fetches over 30 percent more in the local consumer market and that is why palm oil consumption has increased so rapidly.

Productivity and profitability

The cost of production of palm oil is the lowest of all plantation crops with the highest profit. The net profit per hectare of coconut, tea, rubber and oil palm is Rs. 175,000, Rs. 88,000, Rs. 80,000 and Rs. 612,000 respectively. In order to make the country self-sufficient in vegetable oils, there is thus justification for conversion of 40,000 to 50,000 ha of less productive rubber lands into oil palm.

After World War II, with the global vegetable oil demand increasing rapidly and conventional oils such as coconut, soy and corn not being able to meet the demand, many tropical countries expanded oil palm cultivations, some even stretching into virgin rain forests. In Sri Lanka, we are only considering diversifying less productive rubber lands.

In the 1960s, Malaysia had the so-called 60:40 land policy for rubber and oil palm, realising the massive economic benefits of the latter. However, about five years later, its government revised the policy to 40:60. And small farmers were incentivised to grow oil palm over rubber through several national projects.

Abandoning rubber

Our rubber growers are gradually abandoning rubber for alternative crops and other more profitable options of land use. Our national rubber cover exceeded 200, 000 ha in the 1990s, but by 2015, it decreased to 123,000 ha due to decreasing productivity, skilled labour shortage, low prices and profits. One answer to increasing greater profits from their lands is to grow oil palm.

Interestingly, palm and coconut oils, though ridiculed as ‘heart disease-causing tropical oils’ in the 1980s in the West, essentially at the behest of the soya lobby, have continued to grow in global demand. The fat composition of palm oil (not palm kernel oil) can be called heart-friendly as it has 48.5 percent unsaturated fats which decrease cholesterol and 38 percent monounsaturated fat which is known to increase the good (HDL) cholesterol.

In conclusion, determination of what crop to grow should not be conditioned by tradition, but by environmental suitability, sustainability and profit. Taking into consideration all these factors, oil palm overtakes the competitive plantation crops in the wet zone, viz., tea and rubber.

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