Improving palm oil productivity through genetics

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia is looking to genetics to help its palm oil industry improve producti-vity, according to Oxford Business Group (OBG).The country is also moving towards enhancing the sector’s image while seeking to capture a bigger share of the global vegetable oil market, it said in its latest economic briefing issued yesterday.

The Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) had announced early last month that a consortium co-led by the board and US-based Orion Genomics had sequenced three oil palm genomes from two palm species.

“What makes this breakthrough important is that it would allow researchers to understand genetic differences between the two species, which results in differences in yield, disease resistance and height increment,” OBG said.

“While MPOB is confident that genome sequencing will bring great benefits to the industry and the environ-ment, it acknowledged that the process will take time,” it said.

“Genome sequencing is not that straightforward,” MPOB director-general Datuk Dr Mohd Basri Wahid told OBG in an interview.

“The yield depends on many factors, so you would have to assemble all these. We can look at the sequence of the genome and come up with markers like thin shells, high oil, disease resistance and high bunch numbers, then screen them for content, quality, height and so on,” he said.

But, according to him, this screening alone will take years and after real trials, one cannot be assured of an immediate impact.

Although MPOB is in an advantageous position to screen for these traits as it houses the world’s largest oil palm germplasm collection, validation of the screening will take years.

This is because one breeding cycle of the oil palm takes seven years, Mohd Basri said.

“The genome project is part of a far broader programme aimed not only at improving output and allaying environmental concerns but also at establishing Malaysia as an international brand name, one associated with quality and sustainability,” he said.

Mohd Basri said MPOB aimed to be a certifying body, similar to the International Organisation for Standardisation.

“We have established a team and trained them as auditors to develop certificates. There is a complete code of practice that can be applied to plantations, mills and across the industry,” he said.

“Overseas countries don’t differentiate countries which produce palm oil. We are the same as Indonesia to them. Therefore, MPOB is working towards a certificate of assurance,” he added.

Widely used in cooking oil, food products, cosmetics and biofuel, palm oil is a major contributor to the Malaysian economy.

In 2008, the country produced 17.7 million tonnes of crude palm oil (CPO), of which 15 million tonnes were shipped overseas, generating an export revenue of RM17.6 billion.

The industry is providing direct and indirect employment to about 800,000 Malaysians. — Bernama

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