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When science and field practices go hand-in-hand

Posted: Oct 14, 2020 3 minute read Yong Yit Yuan 0 Likes

The world population is expected to hit 9.8 billion by 2050. That’s a 25 percent increase from the current 7.8 billion in 2020. The average global oil consumption per capita is also expected to increase due to the increasing affluence of society. The palm oil industry must rise to the challenge to feed and fuel the world without expanding into new areas.

Innovating new planting material
Our researchers at SMART Research Institute (SMARTRI) look into ways to increase the oil yield per hectare on existing planted land area.

We have focused on assembling superior genes to create new planting material. In 2017, after decades of trial and research, two elite plant clones, Eka 1 and Eka 2, were selected and successfully registered with the Indonesian plant certification body. Large scale commercial planting of Eka 1 and Eka 2 is underway.

These oil palm clones have the potential to increase GAR’s crude palm oil yield by more than 25 percent, and Indonesia’s industry average by even more. However, having this new planting material is not enough. Computations show that there is a gap between genetic yield potential and actual yield. 

Research and agronomic practices go hand-in-hand
Bridging this gap requires the farming and growing of the palms to be done under the right conditions. Our research team also looks into optimising agronomic practices to achieve maximum yield potential successfully. We work closely with the estate team to ensure they implement these best practices.

Compared to conventional seeds, the oil palm clones require extra care and treatment in handling, from the time of dispatch at the tissue culture laboratory to planting at the estate nurseries.

clonal plantlet
Left: A clonal plantlet ready for planting in the nursery. Right: Workers planting clonal plantlets in the nursery.

From laboratory to plantation
Our state-of-the-art SMART Biotechnology Centre in Sentul, near Bogor, produces the clones. They are transported as plantlets (also known as ramets) with roots and a few leaves. These ramets are transported by road from Bogor to the Jakarta airport, where they are flown on the same day or following morning to the local airport nearest to the destination estate nursery. They then make the final arduous journey by land to the plantation’s nursery, which could take half a day.

Left: Ramets ready for dispatch. Right: Unboxing ramets in the estate nursery.

The fragile and sensitive ramets need to be protected from extreme heat and cold. Climate sensors accompany the dispatches to record temperature and relative humidity (moisture level) hourly during transit. Such information is essential in explaining the condition of the ramets when they arrive at the estates. Prolonged exposure to high or cold temperature during transit to the estate could result in high culling rates due to death or poor growth.

Temperature changes
Temperature changes of two boxes of ramets during transport from tissue culture laboratory to the estate.
Quality checking
Quality checking of ramets upon arrival at the estates.

Ramets are planted in the estate nursery, where fertiliser and irrigation regimes, similar to the management of conventional seedlings, are carried out. After 12 months in the nursery, the healthy growing ramets are ready for field planting.

Realising the genetic potential of oil palm clones
Planting in the field is carried out during the rainy season. The favourable planting window is decided based on long-term climatic data collected by the automatic weather stations located in all our estates. The actual planting time is ultimately determined by the prevailing weather conditions and the availability of soil moisture. Rainfall and soil moisture availability is computed and updated daily. This data is used to decide the time of planting and the type and time of fertiliser application

Through these best agronomic practices, we can expect the optimum growth of the oil palms. We continue to study data collected by the estates, to monitor growth and yield trends so that we can implement changes as and when needed.

Click here for more about our work in R&D.

Yong Yit Yuan
About the writer:
Yong Yit Yuan is the Head of the Plant Breeding Department at SMART Research Institute (SMARTRI). He is currently working on improving selection efficiency and reducing the breeding cycle (interval) of oil palms through state-of-the-art molecular assisted selection and breeding techniques and tools. Before joining SMARTRI in 2006, Yit Yuan worked as an oil palm breeder with Malaysian oil palm research stations. He has contributed to numerous articles on oil palm breeding at international conferences and seminars.
Yit Yuan has a Masters Degree in Plant Breeding from the University of Wales.
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