Plant Breeding: Future Prospects

The palm oil industry will continue to grow for the following reasons:

  • growing world population and the still low per capita consumption of oil
  • high productivity of the crop and low cost of production
  • versatility of palm oil and palm kernel oil in oleochemical and industrial uses
  • being a renewable resource, the edge over mineral oil in the increasingly environmental conscious world

Biofuel from vegetable oil is currently used in the countries of the European Union. Similarly, palm diesel will soon make its scene in the palm oil countries e.g. Malaysia, for economic and strategic reasons, although crude palm oil has been traditionally used to power vehicles in plantations in West Africa.

The big stake in the crop in many emerging economies demands continuing funding for research and development (R&D). The need for increasing investment in R&D is even more crucial for higher cost producers e.g. Malaysia, because of the tremendous biotechnological advancements made in competing annual oil crops such as rapeseed and soybean and the subsidies provided which erode the competitive edge and profitability of palm oil. Cultivar improvement is strategically an important if not the primary objective of most crop R&D efforts. Oil palm breeders will have to be able to respond readily to the changing market needs. The first need is to improve crop productivity, and the trend is towards precision farming to achieve this objective. Specific cultivars adapted to certain environments and plantation management requirements are the first prerequisites. The production of definite hybrids (single cross, biclonal) and clones is directed towards this end. Cultivars must be management-friendly in terms of ease of mechanization of harvesting and implementation of other plantation operations. The second is to extend the versatility of the crop in terms of added value products (Murphy 2000; Murphy and Peterson 2000) especially when its high productivity confers an existing comparative advantage. A good example is the production of polyhydroxy butyrate (PHB) for biodegradable thermoplastic production, a recently initiated collaborative project in Malaysia. Others would include production of ß-carotene for vitamin A and natural dye, tocotrienol (vitamin E), industrial fatty acids such as petroslenic acid, erucic acid, and ricinolic for specialty plastic and lubricant production. Most of these objectives will have to be achieved via biotehnological means. It can be argued that the oil palm is not the most appropriate crop for biotechnological genetic modifications because of its perennial nature and the lag time involved (Corley 2000; Hardon and Corley, 2000; Tinker 2000). However, the very rapid development of biotechnological techniques and tools e.g. microarray or DNA chip technology, bioinformatics, and the revelation of much genetic collinearity or synteny (similarity or identity of genes) between crops suggest the genes, techniques and information developed in the cereal crops can be used in oil palm to reduce the development time. And if the transgenes have been strategically incorporated into advanced breeding parents or proven clones, the response time in production of new hybrids to meet market changes would be considerably hastened. Indeed, oil palm breeders will have a challenging but interesting time ahead.