In this instalment of Postcards from the Field, Clairie continues her tour of SMARTRI and learns more about research projects that help boost palm oil productivity
After looking at the CO2 equipment, we went on to the next research project which involved the biogeochemical cycling of nutrients in the plantations. To put it in layman’s terms: how much nitrogen and phosphorous is in the soil over a period of time; when and how much gases are released from the decomposition of fertiliser; and interestingly, what are the cost savings biogeochemistry brings for GAR.
The leading researchers were two amazing women, who like my biogeochemistry professor are extremely excited when talking about (in my own opinion, the least excitable living things) microorganisms. These microorganisms are the key drivers of biogeochemical recycling in the soil. They break down organic nutrients into a form that the palm tree can reuse.
The experiment that really made me excited was the measurement of the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous depletion over time using Empty Fruit Bunches (EFB) as solid fertiliser. I was genuinely impressed when the experiments revealed that phosphorous was depleted within three months of application while close to 40 percent of nitrogen remained even after a year. This actually saves the company a year’s worth of expenditure on mineral fertilisers since the rate of uptake of certain nutrients wasn’t as quick as expected. Silently, I thought to myself that sustainable agricultural practices have once again proven to be a cost saving rather than a cost. It’s amazing how much we can learn from nature and how much better we can manage our lands if we are willing to understand what nature is trying to tell us.
Finally, we took a look at plant breeding and tissue culture. It was like going back to high school again! In the shade of the six-year-old palm trees, we listened to the leading plant breeder introduce the methodologies to obtain the highest yielding palm varieties.
When one peeks under the massive leaf stems, the male and female flowers are completely swarmed by beetles that pollinate the plant. The beetles were discovered to be a dependable pollinator of the palm. The cost savings and efficiency brought by this little beetle are immense. Instead of hiring workers to climb the trees and manually pollinate each and every palm tree, we rely on these tiny creatures instead. It’s absolutely mind-blowing. That was our quick history of palm reproduction!
Developing better palm oil trees
Back to the topic of plant breeding, it is interesting to note that GAR has finally planted clones from tissue cultures, moving away from conventional plant breeding. Not content to rest on their laurels, the research team have moved on to tackle other issues. For instance, they are investigating which plant varieties are most disease resistant and whether crossing palm and Aloe Vera would produce higher quality oils. I never imagined there were so many avenues to improve palm oil. Fortunately technology has given us the means to improve productivity without deforestation.
Join Clairie in the next instalment when she visits a methane capture facility.