Oil Palm: Not So Evil After All?

Oil Palm: Not So Evil After All?

Oil palm is being played out as a big issue on the sustainability agenda in the country. Despite repeated efforts by responsible stakeholders including growers, Agri experts, academia etc, in refuting irrelevant allegations, the topic keeps arising the latest of which is the media pick up alleging that oil palm cultivation is to replace rubber, arguing that oil palm development programme is a threat to the rubber industry and the environment.

Prof. Asoka Nugawela explains the reality, backed by scientific data and evidence to refute allegations being plied to media.

The Government has clearly established a policy to expand the existing oil palm extent in the country to a maximum of 20,000 ha to substitute oil and fat imports. To achieve the 20,000 ha target, around 11,000 ha of oil palm need to be planted. Articles stating "oil palm to replace rubber" gives a false impression that oil palm would replace the entire rubber extent of the country; hence the need to set the record straight.

One scientific factor identified is that the water transpiration of oil palm plants increases from 5.5 to 7.5mm/day during drought periods whereas in rubber it decreases from 4.5 to 2.5 mm/day. The response to drought by the rubber plants is scientific but not that of oil palm. Water transpiration under drought periods i.e., when the soil water is generally depleted, cannot increase unless the plants are irrigated.

It is common knowledge that water transpiration cannot be higher under drought conditions when soils are depleted of moisture. Under such stressful environmental conditions the stomatal pore size of leaves in whatever plant species are reduced. Hence, it cannot be concluded that oil palm consumes water to the extent to create water shortages in oil palm cultivated areas.

It is also claimed that the chemical fertiliser need for rubber plantations is less due to nutrient recycling through the defoliation and re-foliation process of this deciduous type plant species. Generally nutrient recycling happens in both deciduous and non-deciduous type of plant species.

The difference lies in that, in deciduous plants all leaves are shed simultaneously whilst in nondeciduous plants, leaves are shed as and when a leaf becomes non-contributing to the growth of the plant.
With nutrient management strategies together with soil and moisture conservation practices in place there is no way that the soil in oil palm plantations get degraded to the extent that replanting cannot be undertaken. Successful oil palm replantings with no signs of growth retardation could be seen at Nakiadeniya Estate where second generation oil palm plantations exist.

A scientifically established fact is that palm oil, which is rich in vitamin E is the most accepted ingredient, being used globally in the manufacture of skin and hair creams. In Sri Lanka there have been random claims that dogs who have consumed ripe oil palm fruits have shed their coat of fur.

There is no scientific proof which links consumption of oil palm fruits to shedding of fur.

Besides the environmental allegations, declining natural rubber production in the country is a Serious issue.

At national level there should be a concerted effort to develop short, mid and long term strategies to arrest this declining trend in the plantation sector. In addition experts in the industry can share their knowledge to turnaround the trend.

The plantation sector needs to be viewed holistically. A diversification strateg of crops bringing in a high Return on Investment (ROI) is the logical process. Oil palm and cinnamon fall into the high ROI category and hence investing in such crops is a no-brainer. If trading is poor in some crops the other crops would compensate. An 'expert' of a particular crop should evolve into an agriexpert who understands trends and advocates the big agri picture and the benefits that plantation companies and the country could accrue.

Oils and fats derived from oil palm crop have a wide range of applications. Apart from being used for cooking purposes, it is used to manufacture almost 40-50% of goods available in a supermarket today Bakery products, confectioneries, chocolates, biscuits, noodles, milk powder, soaps, detergents, skin and hair care creams and oils, margarines and some medicines are a few examples. Oils and fats derived from our coconut industry and imported to the country as palm oil are used for the production of all these goods.
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