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Is Palm Oil Sustainable for People?

Is palm oil sustainable for people?

Palm oil belongs to Elaeis, which is the only genus of Arecaceae family that produces edible oil. The current commercial planting is mainly E. guineensis, (Jacq.) originating from West Africa, selected due to its yield superiority. The cultivations occur throughout the tropical belt, especially in Southeast Asia, Africa and South America. To date, palm oil has become the most important oil crop in the world, accounting for 37% of global vegetable oil production. However, palm oil sustainability is always debated. Is palm oil really sustainable for people? To answer this, some facts are worth pondering.

First of all, palm oil is 10 times more efficient than other major oil crops. About 4.00 MT ha-1 yr-1 of palm oil is produced, whereas soybean, rapeseed, and sunflower only range from 0.37 to 0.69 MT ha-1 yr-1. More importantly, palm oil only uses 7% of global oilseed harvested land compared to 44% for soybean, so the palm oil price is always more competitive as a result of lower production cost. Certainly, higher affordability of palm oil can reach more consumers, especially from developing countries.

Unlike other oil crops, palm oil also has the most sustainability certification schemes. A non-profitable panel, namely Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004. The RSPO has become a dominant certifier to develop a set of environmental and social criteria for the production of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). RSPO now has more than 3,000 members worldwide, representing all links along the palm oil supply chain. They have committed to producing, sourcing and/or using only CSPO. On top of that, two national certification schemes i.e. Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) and Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) have also been established respectively by both countries, the biggest palm oil contributors in the world. For biofuels derived from palm oil, there are more schemes such as International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC) systems based on the European Union’s standards. In other words, the measure of stringency on sustainability for palm oil is unprecedented.

Because of this, planting expansion through deforestation is now prohibited in Malaysia and the fertile land is being reduced due to urban development. Therefore, big plantation companies, such as Sime Darby have to improve oil yield on the existing land bank to meet increasing demand. Better agronomic practices, including water and fertilizer management, in the estates can confer immediate yield improvement. On the other hand, selective breeding for high yielding, abiotic stress tolerant materials is also equally essential in the long run; however, the breeding cycle of perennial palm oil is about 12 years per generation.

The escalating change of environment is evident and soon will outpace selection response in palm oil breeding. For example, as a result of the natural disasters that occurred in El Niño in 2015, palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia suffered about 30% yield reduction when the monthly rainfall dropped below 150 mm. Thus, breeders are looking to genomics technologies to accelerate the breeding progress.

Classical linkage mapping has been adopted to identify quantitative trait loci (QTL) for oil yield-related traits in palm oil. However, most of the findings are yet to be deployed for marker-assisted selection (MAS), due to the inconsistent predictability across populations and environments. The limitation is mainly due to the small training populations derived from very specific families.

When the first palm oil genome was sequenced, it opened a door to whole-genome scanning for QTL. Populations with a broad genetic base are essential to identify as many QTLs as possible through genome-wide association study (GWAS) and the first one was successfully done for mesocarp oil content at the gene level (Teh et al., 2016). Undoubtedly, the QTLs do allow researchers to identify the causal genes, but they do not explain the maximum phenotypic variation. Hence, the whole-genome marker effect of a commercial parent stock of Sime Darby Plantation was consolidated to develop genomic selection models (Kwong et al., 2017).

In April 2016, the validated model was successfully deployed in palm oil breeding and seed production for the first time. The new planting materials, branded as GenomeSelectTM, is expected to yield 15% more oil, which can feed 15 million people on the existing land. The same pipeline is being deployed for other traits, but the challenge will be found in phenomics, just like other crops.

So, returning to the original question at hand: is palm oil sustainable for people? The answer is ‘yes’. The GM-free palm oil will become more sustainable with the help of genomics tools and the accelerating yield increment will sustain the global population growth in the future.

Teh Chee Keng


Teh Chee Keng is the Chief Molecular Breeder within the Molecular Breeding and Bioinformatics, Biotechnology & Breeding Department at Sime Darby Plantation R&D Centre in Malaysia.


To learn more about the future of oil palm breeding, listen to Teh Chee Keng speak at the 5th Plant Genomics & Gene Editing Congress: Asia. View the agenda here.

  • Kwong, Q.B., Ong, A.L., Teh, C.K., Chew, F.T., Tammi, M., Mayes, S., Kulaveerasingam, H., Yeoh, S.H., Harikrishna, J.A., Appleton, D.R., 2017. Genomic Selection in Commercial Perennial Crops: Applicability and Improvement in Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis Jacq.). Scientific Reports 7, 2872.
  • Teh, C.-K., Ong, A.-L., Kwong, Q.-B., Apparow, S., Chew, F.-T., Mayes, S., Mohamed, M., Appleton, D., Kulaveerasingam, H., 2016. Genome-wide association study identifies three key loci for high mesocarp oil content in perennial crop oil palm. Scientific Reports 6, 19075.

2 Responses to “Is Palm Oil Sustainable for People?”

  1. Wickneswari Ratnam

    Excellent explanation on sustainable production of palm oil and exemplary work on genomic selection to expedite breeding objectives.


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