Few environmentalists feel any fondness for the oil palm, with its connections to deforestation in the tropics. But the waxy orange pods the tree sprouts in vivid bunches generate 45 percent of the globe's edible oil, and consuming this incredibly versatile product is almost unavoidable, for it goes into everything from chocolate and peanut butter, to biscuits and cereal. The debate over how to turn palm oil into a sustainable crop has consequently been a priority for some time.
Now, a duo of papers just published in Nature moves a step in that direction, suggesting that breeders could further boost oil palm yields, and in that way significantly reduce the competition between rainforests and palm oil plantations around the world.
In one of the two papers, the research team has made a fully sequenced palm oil genome available to the public for the very first time. But it's thesecond, linked, paper that has sparked the most interest with its more specific discovery of a gene, called SHELL, that gives rise to the most productive and commercially valuable kinds of oil palm fruits.
Environmental concern motivated the research, says Rajinder Singh, an author on the paper and leader of the genomics group for the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB), the government entity that oversees the industry in Malaysia and which funded the research. "The first thing was to try and produce more oil palms with existing land," he says. "The idea is not to encroach in new areas."
Singh explains that the discovery equips farmers in the tropics with the ability to identify and plant only the most productive seeds, in turn reducing the pressure to expand into virgin rainforest. "It has implications in three continents."
The African oil palm is the primary source of palm oil globally, and its domestication in Southeast Asia, South America, and West Africa now drives the industry. The trees produce three kinds of fruit—dura, pisifera, and tenera, the latter being the perfect hybrid of the other two, because it yields the most oil.
These plump ochre rounds are a farmer's gold, producing 30 percent more oil than other types. Breeders try to control the output of tenera-yielding seeds by manually cross-pollinating the most suitable dura andpisifera plants. But getting a field that teems with tenera is still a challenge, because natural pollinators intervene.
Wind, birds, and insects can result in uncontrolled 'contamination'—which just means that a dura plant's pollen gets crossed with another dura for instance, and gives rise to plants that won't produce the much sought-after tenera fruits. So while manual crossover works for the most part, "there's an error rate associated with it that varies a lot, but it's pretty high,' says Robert Martienssen, a plant geneticist and author on the paper, who lectures at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.
Usually, farmers have to wait upwards of five years until palm oil plants bear fruiting bunches to figure out if they're going to yield the desiredtenera pods. Knowing the SHELL gene that triggers the production of these fruits, however, gives breeders a way to test things first.
"If you screen at the nursery stage you can select what you want to field plant," Singh explains. Screening would work much the same way as a genetic test on a human. "Immediately with our tools you can check which are the seeds of the type you want," adds Ravigadevi Sambanthamurthi, head of the Advanced Biotechnology and Breeding Center at the MPOB. These fruits of the oil palm shows the Dura fruit on the left and the Tenera fruit on the right. Tenera fruits yield 30 percent more oil per fruit than Dura fruits. Photograph: Malaysian Palm Oil Board
That puts years back on the clock, and gives farmers a sure way to increase production. "Now with proper quality control we might have contamination of less than ten percent," Sambanthamurthi says. Currently, plantations in Malaysia yield four tons of oil per hectare per year. The research could go some way toward achieving the goal of six tons by 2020.
But talk of palm oil expansion raises hackles. Many people hear the phrase and mentally switch to the iconic orangutan, and for good reason, since forest clearance for plantations in Indonesia especially has resulted in death and displacement in orangutan populations.
Palm oil has become synonymous with illegal logging, and slash and burntactics that leave virgin forest devastated. There are also allegations of worker abuse on plantations, and the destruction of indigenous peoples' livelihoods.
Viewing the entire palm oil industry as one ungoverned force, however, springs from "misinformation," says Choo Yuen May, the director general of the MPOB. In Malaysia "more than 50 percent of the land is [still] under forest cover," she says. The government there has held a pledge since 1992 to maintain that 50 percent, and plantations are only supposed to expand onto land that had previously been cleared for crops like cocoa or rubber.
Plantations also generate income for thousands of workers. "It's an avenue for poverty reduction…we cannot forget that there are people out there who are hungry," Sambanthamurthi argues.
And ultimately, palm oil crops only use up five percent of total land area farmed for oil crops globally—yet they produce almost half of the world's edible oil. But when they do infringe on natural habitat, it happens to be tropical rainforest, symbolic of the globe's diversity and a plethora of charismatic species.
Palm oil remains contentious, yet its advance is inevitable. And mapping the genome is not going to solve the problem absolutely. "Our ultimate goal was to reduce the rainforest footprint; the damage that is done by these plantations," says Martienssen. "But biology can only do so much. Policy has to be a big part of the equation."
Speaking from the World Resources Institute (WRI) in a statement via email, Nigel Sizer, the Institute's Global Forest Initiative director, said, "Increasing the productivity of existing oil palm plantations through better plants is promising, but the real issue is that we need better protections for forests and better alternatives for producers to grow their businesses." Future standards should require that palm oil plantations only expand onto land that is already degraded instead of into untouched forest, he went on to say.
For Martienssen, the solution lies in tightening regulations, but also in motivating farmers with the practical solutions that this new research affords.
In the future, governments "will be able to offer farmers, and especially small holders, seeds that have much more predictable yields. The way I think about that is that that would be a strong incentive for those farmers to obey the law," he says. "As much as possible you want the farmer to voluntarily take up those policies."