Cladus: Eukaryota
Regnum: Plantae
Divisio: Magnoliophyta
Classis: Liliopsida
Subclassis: Commelinidae
Ordo: Arecales
Familia: Arecaceae
Subfamilia: Arecoideae
Tribus: Cocoeae
Subtribus: Elaeidinae
Genus: Elaeis

The oil palms (Elaeis) comprise two species of the Arecaceae, or palm family. They are used in commercial agriculture in the production of palm oil. The African Oil Palm Elaeis guineensis is native to west Africa, occurring between Angola and Gambia, while the American Oil Palm Elaeis oleifera is native to tropical Central America and South America. The generic name is derived from the Greek for oil, elaion, while the species name refers to its country of origin.[1]

Mature trees are single-stemmed, and grow to 20 m tall. The leaves are pinnate, and reach between 3-5 m long. A young tree produces about 30 leaves a year. Established trees over 10 years produce about 20 leaves a year. The flowers are produced in dense clusters; each individual flower is small, with three sepals and three petals.

The palm fruit takes five to six months to mature from pollination to maturity. The palm fruit is reddish, about the size of a large plum and grows in large bunches. Each fruit is made up of an oily, fleshy outer layer (the pericarp), with a single seed (the palm kernel), also rich in oil. When ripe, each bunch of fruit weigh 40-50 kilogrammes.

Oil is extracted from both the pulp of the fruit (palm oil, an edible oil) and the kernel (palm kernel oil, used in foods and for soap manufacture). For every 100 kilograms of fruit bunches, typically 22 kilograms of palm oil and 1.6 kilograms of palm kernel oil can be extracted.

The high oil yield of oil palm trees (as high as 7,250 liters per hectare per year) has made it a common cooking ingredient in southeast Asia and the tropical belt of Africa. Its increasing use in the commercial food industry in other parts of the world is buoyed by its cheaper pricing,[2] the high oxidative stability of the refined product[3][4] and high levels of natural antioxidants.[5]

Since palm oil contains more saturated fats than oils made from canola, corn, linseed, soybeans, safflower, and sunflowers, it can withstand extreme deep-frying heat and resists oxidation.[6]


For each hectare of oil palm, which is harvested year-round, the annual production averages 10 tonnes of fruit, which yields 3,000 kg of pericarp oil, and 750 kg of seed kernels, which yield 250 kg of high quality palm kernel oil as well as 500 kg of kernel meal. Palm fronds and kernel meal are processed for use as livestock feed.[7]

All modern, commercial planting material consists of tenera palms or DxP hybrids, which are obtained by crossing thickshelled dura with shell-less pisifera. Although common commercial pregerminated seed is as thick-shelled as the dura mother tree, the resulting tree will produce thin-shelled tenera fruit. An alternative is to pre-germinated seed, once constraints to mass production are overcome, is tissue-cultured or “clonal” palms which provide “true copies” of high yielding DxP palms.

It is essential for an oil palm nursery to have an uninterrupted supply of clean water and topsoil which is both well-structured and sufficiently deep to accommodate three rounds of on-site bag-filling. Approximately 35ha can grow enough seedlings over a three-year period to plant a 5,000ha plantation. Pre-nursery seedlings must be watered daily. Whenever rainfall is less than 10 mm per day, irrigation is required, and the system must be capable of uniformly applying 6.5mm water per day.

Pre-nursery seedlings in the four-leaf stage of development (10 to 14 weeks after planting) are usually transplanted to the main nursery, after their gradual adjustment to full sunlight and rigid selection process. During culling, seedlings that have “grassy”, “crinkled”, “twisted”, or “rolled” leaves are discarded.

Weeds growing in the polybags must be carefully pulled out. Herbicides should not be used. Numerous insects (e.g., ants, armyworm, bagworm, aphids, thrips, mites, grasshoppers, mealybugs) and vertebrates (e.g., rats, squirrels, porcupine, wild boar, monkeys) are pests in oil palm nurseries and must be carefully identified before control measures are implemented.

After eight months in the nursery, normal healthy plants should be 0.8–1 m in height and display 5 to 8 functional leaves.
Oil palm plantations in the municipality of Aracataca, Colombia.

The proper approach to oil palm development begins with the establishment of leguminous cover plants, immediately following land clearing. It helps prevent soil erosion and surface run-off, improve soil structure and palm root development, increase the response to mineral fertilizer in later years, and reduce the danger of micronutrient deficiencies. Leguminous cover plants also help prevent outbreaks of Oryctes beetles, which nest in exposed decomposing vegetation. Both phosphorus and potassium fertilizers are needed to maximize the leguminous cover plants’ symbiotic nitrogen fixation potential of approximately 200 kg nitrogen/ha/yr and are applied to most soils at 115 to 300 kg phosphorous oxide/ha and 35 to 60 kg potassium oxide/ha. Young palms are severely set back where grasses are allowed to dominate the inter-row vegetation, particularly on poor soils where the correction of nutrient deficiencies is difficult and costly.

Crop nutrient

Nutrient uptake is low during the first year but increases steeply between year one and year three (when harvesting commences) and stabilizes around years five to six. Early applications of fertilizer, better planting material, more rigid culling has led to a dramatic increase in early yields in third to sixth years from planting. In regions without any serious drop in rainfall, yields of over 25 tonnes of fresh fruit bunches per hectare have been achieved in the second year of harvesting.

Nitrogen deficiency is usually associated with conditions of water-logging, heavy weed infestation and topsoil erosion. Symptoms are a general paling and stiffening of the pinnae which lose their glossy lustre. Extended deficiency will reduce the number of effective fruit bunches produced as well as the bunch size.

Phosphorous deficient leaves do not show specific symptoms but frond length, bunch size and trunk diameter are all reduced.

Potassium deficiency is very common and is the major yield constraint in sandy or peaty soils. The most frequent symptom is "confluent orange spotting". Pale green spots appear on the pinnae of older leaves; as the deficiency intensifies, the spots turn orange or reddish-orange and desiccation sets in, starting from the tips and outer margins of the pinnae. Other symptoms are "orange blotch" and "mid-crown yellowing". In soils having a low water holding capacity (sands and peats) potassium deficiency can lead to a rapid, premature desiccation of fronds.

Copper deficiency is common on deep peat soils and occurs also on very sandy soils. It appears initially as whitish yellow mottling of younger fronds. As the deficiency intensifies, yellow, mottled, inter-veinal stripes appear and rusty, brown spots develop on the distal end of leaflets. Affected fronds and leaflets are stunted and leaflets dry up. On sandy soils, palms recover rapidly after a basal application of 50 grams of copper sulphate. On peat soils, lasting correction of copper deficiency is difficult, as applied copper sulphate is rendered unavailable. A promising method to correct copper deficiency on peat soil is to mix copper sulphate with clay soil and to form tennis-ball sized “copper mudballs” that are placed around the palm and that provide a slow-release source of available copper.

Healthy, well selected seedlings are a pre-condition for early and sustained high yield. In most cases granular multinutrient compound fertilizers are the preferred nutrient source for seedlings in the nursery. Where sub-soil is used to fill the polybags, extra dressings of Kieserite may be required (10-15 g every 6 to 8 weeks). Where compound fertilizers are not available, equivalent quantities of straight materials should be used.

To maintain good fertilizer response and high yields in older palms (selective) thinning is often necessary.


Unlike other relatives, the oil palm trees do not produce offshoots; propagation is by sowing the seeds.

Before the Second World War, selection work had started in the Deli dura population in Malaya. Pollen was imported from Africa, and DxT and DxP crosses were made. Segregation of fruit forms in crosses made in the 1950s was often incorrect. In the absence of a good marker gene, there was no way of knowing whether control of pollination was adequate.

It was only after the work of Beirnaert and Vanderweyen (1941) that it became feasible to monitor the efficacy of controlled pollination. From 1963 until the introduction of weevils in 1982 contamination in Malaysia's commercial plantings was generally low. It appears that thrips, the main pollinating agent at that time, rarely gained access to bagged female inflorescences. However, E. kamerunicus is much more persistent, and after it was introduced D contamination became a significant problem. This problem appears to have persisted for much of the 1980s, but in a 1991 comparison of seed sources, contamination had been reduced to below 2% (Rao and Kushairi, 1999), indicating that control had been restored.

A 1992 study[8] at a trial plot in Banting, Selangor revealed yield of Deli dura oil palms after four generations of selection was 60% greater than that of the unselected base population. Crossing the dura and pisifera to give the thin-shelled tenera fruit type improved partitioning of dry matter within the fruit, giving a 30% increase in oil yield at the expense of shell, without changing total dry matter production.


Basal stem rot, caused by the fungus ganoderma, is the most serious disease of oil palm in Malaysia and Indonesia. Previously, research on basal stem rot was hampered by the failure to artificially infect oil palm with the fungus. Although Ganoderma had been associated with BSR (Thompson, 1931), proof of its pathogenicity to satisfy Koch’s postulate was only achieved in the early 1990s by inoculating oil palm seedling roots (Ariffin and Idris, 1991) or by using rubber wood blocks (Khairuddin, 1990). A reliable and quick technique for testing the pathogenicity of the Ganoderma fungus by inoculating oil palm germinated seeds.[9]

This fatal disease can lead to losses as much as 80% after repeated planting cycles. Ganoderma produces enzymes that degrade the oil palm tissue and affect the infected oil palm xylem thus causing serious problems to the distribution of water and other nutrients to the top of the palm tree.[10] Ganoderma infection is well defined by its lesion in the stem. The cross section of infected palm stem shows that the lesion appears as a light brown area of rotting tissue with a distinctive irregularly shaped darker band at the borders of this area.[11] The infected tissue become as an ashen-grey powdery and if the palm remains standing, the infected trunk rapidly become hollow.[12]

In a 2007 study in Portugal, scientists suggest control of ganoderma on oil palms would benefit from further consideration of the process as one of white rot. Ganoderma are extraordinary organisms capable exclusively of degrading lignin to carbon dioxide and water: celluloses are then available as nutrients for the fungus. It is necessary to consider this mode of attack as a white rot involving lignin biodegradation, for integrated control. The existing literature does not report this area and appears to be concerned particularly with the mode of spread and molecular biology of ganoderma. The white rot perception opens up new fields in breeding/selecting for resistant cultivars of oil palms with high lignin content, ensuring the conditions for lignin decomposition are reduced, and simply sealing damaged oil palms to stop decay. It is likely that spread is by spores rather than roots. The knowledge gained can be employed in the rapid degradation of oil palm waste on the plantation floor by inoculating suitable fungi, and/or treating the waste more appropriately (e.g. chipping and spreading over the floor rather than windrowing).[13]

Endophytic bacteria are organisms inhabiting plant organs that at some time in their life cycle can colonize the internal plant tissues without causing apparent harm to the host.[14] Introducing endophytic bacteria to the roots to control plant disease is to manipulate the indigenous bacterial communities of the roots in a manner, which leads to enhanced suppression of soil-born pathogens. The use of endophytic bacteria should thus be preferred to other biological control agents as they are internal colonizers, with better ability to compete within the vascular systems, limiting Ganoderma for both nutrients and space during its proliferation. Two bacterial isolates Burkholderia cepacia(B3) and Pseudomonas aeruginosa(P3) were selected for evaluation in the glasshouse for their efficacy in enhancing growth and subsequent suppression of the spread of BSR in oil palm seedlings.[15]

Little leaf syndrome has not been fully explained but has often been confused with Boron deficiency. The growing point is damaged, sometimes by Oryctes beetle. Small, distorted leaves that resemble Boron deficiency emerge. This is often followed by secondary pathogenic infections in the spear that can lead to spear rot and palm death.[16]


The oil palm is a tropical palm tree. There are two species of oil palm. The better known one originated in Guinea, Africa and was first illustrated by Nicholaas Jacquin in 1763, hence its name, Elaeis guineensis Jacq.

Oil palms were introduced to Java by the Dutch in 1848[17] and to Malaysia (then the British colony of Malaya) in 1910 by Scotsman William Sime and English banker Henry Darby. The first plantations were mostly established and operated by British plantation owners, such as Sime Darby and Boustead. The large plantation companies remained listed in London until the Malaysian government engineered their "Malaysianisation" throughout the 1960s and 1970s.[18]

Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) is the world's biggest oil palm planter with planted area close to 900,000 hectares in Malaysia and Indonesia. Felda was formed on July 1, 1956 when the Land Development Act came into force with the main aim of eradicating poverty. Settlers were each allocated 10 acres of land (about 4 hectares) planted either with oil palm or rubber, and given 20 years to pay off the debt for the land.[19]

After Malaysia achieved independence in 1957, the government focused on value adding of rubber planting, boosting exports, and alleviating poverty through land schemes. In the 1960s and 1970s, the government encouraged planting of other crops, to cushion the economy when world prices of tin and rubber plunged. Rubber estates gave way to oil palm plantations. In 1961, Felda's first oil palm settlement opened, with 3.75 km² of land. As of 2000, 6855.2 km² (approximately 76%) of the land under Felda's programmes were devoted to oil palms.[20] By 2008, Felda's resettlement broadened to 112,635 families and they work on 8533.13 km² of agriculture land throughout Malaysia. Oil palm planting took up 84% of Felda's plantation landbank.[21]

In 2007, Golden Hope Berhad, Kumpulan Guthrie Berhad and Sime Darby merged to form Malaysia's biggest publicly traded oil palm company with landbank exceeding 633,000 hectares. Its plantations are spread across Malaysia and Indonesian islands of Sumatera, Kalimantan and Sulawesi. Oil palm planting is Sime Darby largest revenue generator. In 2009, about 70% of the conglomerate's profits comes from the harvest and sale of palm oil. As an integrated palm oil entity, Sime Darby produce specialty fats, oleochemicals and biodiesel for export.


In the 1960s, research and development (R&D) in oil palm breeding began to expand after Malaysia's Department of Agriculture established an exchange program with West African economies and four private plantations formed the Oil Palm Genetics Laboratory.[22] The government also established Kolej Serdang, which became the Universiti Pertanian Malaysia (UPM) in the 1970s to train agricultural and agro-industrial engineers and agro-business graduates to conduct research in the field.

In 1979, following strong lobbying from oil palm planters and support from the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI) and UPM, the government set up the Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia (Porim).[23] B.C. Sekhar was instrumental in Porim's recruitment and training of scientists to undertake R&D in oil palm tree breeding, palm oil nutrition and potential oleochemical use. Sekhar, as founder and chairman, strategised Porim to be a public-and-private-coordinated institution. As a result, Porim (renamed Malaysian Palm Oil Board in 2000) became Malaysia's top research entity with the highest technology commercialisation rate of 20% compared to 5% among local universities. While MPOB has gained international prominence, its relevance is dependent on it churning out breakthrough findings in the world's fast-changing oil crop genetics, dietary fat nutrition and process engineering landscape.

Palm oil production
Fruit of oil palm tree

The oil palm originated in West Africa but has since been planted successfully in tropical regions within 20 degrees of the equator. There is evidence of palm oil use in Ancient Egypt.[citation needed] In the Republic of the Congo, or Congo Brazzaville, precisely in the Northern part, not far from Ouesso, local people produce this oil by hand. They harvest the fruit, boil it to let the water part evaporate, then they press what is left in order to collect the reddish, orange colored oil.

In 1995, Malaysia was the world's largest producer with 51% of world production. Since 2007, Indonesia emerged the world's largest producer of palm oil producing approximately 50% of world palm oil volume.

Worldwide palm oil production during the 2005-2006 growing season was 39.8 million metric tons, of which 4.3 million tons was in the form of palm kernel oil. It is thus by far the most widely-produced tropical oil, and constitutes thirty percent of total edible oil production worldwide.[24]

Social and environmental impacts
See also: Environmental impact of palm oil

The social and environmental impacts of oil palm cultivation is a highly controversial topic. There are multiple sources highlighting the positive and negative aspects of this industry.[7][25][26] Oil palm is a valuable economic crop and provides a major source of employment. It allows many small landholders to participate in the cash economy and also often results in the upgrade of the infrastructure (schools, roads, telecommunications) within that area.[citation needed] However, there are cases where native customary lands have been appropriated by oil palm plantations without any form of consultation or compensation,[27] leading to social conflict between the plantations and local residents.[28] In some cases oil palm plantations are dependent on imported labour or illegal immigrants, and there are some concerns about the employment conditions and social impacts of these practices.[29]

Biodiversity loss (including the potential extinction of charismatic species) is one of the most serious negative effects of oil palm cultivation. Large areas of already threatened tropical rainforest often need to be cleared to make way for plantations, especially in South-East Asia where there is a lack of enforcement of forest protection laws. The impacts of oil palm plantations on the environment is dependent on multiple factors, including the existence and compliance to environmental legislation, the pre-establishment habitat and corporate responsibility. In some states where oil palm is established there had been little enforcement of environmental legislation leading to encroachment of plantations into protected areas,[30] encroachment into riparian strips,[31] open burning of plantation wastes[citation needed] and release of palm mill pollutants such as palm oil mill effluent (POME) in the environment.[31] Some of these states have recognised the need for increased environmental protection and this is resulting in more environmental friendly practices.[32][33] Among those approaches is anaerobic treatment of POME. POME can be a good source for biogas (CH4) production and electricity generation. Anaerobic treatment of POME has been practiced in Malaysia and Indonesia. Like most wastewater sludge, anaerobic treatment of POME results in domination of Methanosaeta concilii. It plays an important role in methane production from acetate and the optimum condition for its growth should be considered to harvest biogas as renewable fuel.[34]

Demand for palm oil has increased in recent years due to its use as a biofuel,[35] but recognition that this increases the environmental impact of cultivation as well as causing a food vs fuel issue has forced some developed nations to reconsider their policies on biofuel to improve standards and ensure sustainability.[36] However, critics point out that even companies signed up to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil continue to engage in environmentally damaging practices[37] and that using palm oil as biofuel is perverse because it encourages the conversion of natural habitats such as forests and peatlands, releasing large quantities of greenhouse gases.[38]

Carbon balance
Main article: Environmental impact of palm oil

Oil palm production has been documented as a cause of substantial and often irreversible damage to the natural environment.[39] Its impacts include: deforestation, habitat loss of critically endangered species,[40][41][42] and a significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions.[43]

The pollution is exacerbated because many rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia lie atop peat bogs that store great quantities of carbon that are released when the forests are cut down and the bogs drained to make way for the palm oil plantations.

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace claim that the deforestation caused by making way for oil palm plantations is far more damaging for the climate than the benefits gained by switching to biofuel.[44][45] Fresh land clearances, especially in Borneo, are contentious for their environmental impact.[46][47] NGOs and many international bodies are now warning that, despite thousands of square kilometres of land standing unplanted in Indonesia, tropical hardwood forests are being cleared for palm oil plantations. Furthermore, as the remaining unprotected lowland forest dwindles, developers are looking to plant peat swamp land, using drainage that unlocks the carbon held in their trees, and begins an oxidation process of the peat which can release 5,000 to 10,000 years worth of stored carbon. Drained peat is also at very high risk of forest fire, and there is a clear record of fire being used to clear vegetation for oil palm development in Indonesia. Drought and man-made clearances have led to massive uncontrolled forest fires over recent years, covering parts of Southeast Asia in haze and leading to an international crisis with Malaysia. These fires have been variously blamed on a government with little ability to enforce its own laws while impoverished small farmers and large plantation owners illegally burn and clear forests and peat lands to reap the developmental benefits of environmentally-valuable land.[48][49]

Many of the major companies in the vegetable oil economy participate in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which is trying to address this problem. In 2008 Unilever, a member of the group, committed to use only oil palm oil which is certified as sustainable, by ensuring that the large companies and smallholders that supply it convert to sustainable production by 2015.[50]

Meanwhile, much of the recent investment in new palm plantations for biofuel has been part-funded through carbon credit projects through the Clean Development Mechanism; however the reputational risk associated with unsustainable palm plantations in Indonesia has now made many funds wary of investing there.[51]

Palm biomass as fuel

Some scientists and companies are going beyond using just the oil, and are proposing to convert fronds, empty fruit bunches and palm kernel shells harvested from oil palm plantations into renewable electricity,[52] cellulosic ethanol,[53] biogas,[54] biohydrogen[55] and bioplastic.[56] Thus, by using both the biomass from the plantation as well as the processing residues from palm oil production (fibers, kernel shells, palm oil mill effluent), bioenergy from palm plantations can have an effect on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Examples of these production techniques have been registered as projects under the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism.

By using palm biomass to generate renewable energy, fuels and biodegradable products, both the energy balance and the greenhouse gas emissions balance for palm biodiesel is improved. For every tonne of palm oil produced from fresh fruit bunches, a farmer harvests around 6 tonnes of waste palm fronds, 1 tonne of palm trunks, 5 tonnes of empty fruit bunches, 1 tonne of press fiber (from the mesocarp of the fruit), half a tonne of palm kernel endocarp, 250 kg of palm kernel press cake, and 100 tonnes of palm oil mill effluent. Oil palm plantations incinerate biomass to generate power for palm oil mills. Oil palm plantations yield large amount of biomass that can be recycled into medium density fibreboards and light furniture.[57] In efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, scientists treat palm oil mill effluent to extract biogas. After purification, biogas can substitute for natural gas for use at factories. Anaerobic treatment of palm oil mill effluent, practiced in Malaysia and Indonesia, results in domination of Methanosaeta concilii. It plays an important role in methane production from acetate and the optimum condition for its growth should be considered to harvest biogas as renewable fuel.[34]

Unfortunately, palm oil has detrimental effects on the environment and is not considered to be a sustainable biofuel. The deforestation occurring throughout Malaysia and Indonesia as a result of the growing demand for this plant has made scarce natural habitats for Orangutan and other rainforest dwellers. More carbon is released during the life cycle of a palm oil plant to its use as a biofuel than is emitted by the same volume of fossil fuels.[58]

Malayan folkculture

Since the days when the 'guineesis' was first introduced by the British, Indian laborers were brought in to work the estates. It was there that Hindu beliefs mixed with the local Malay culture and started the usage of palm seeds by traditional healers suffixed with tok 'bomoh' or 'pawang' in the local language. It was found that every bunch of palm fruit usually bears a single 'illustrious' seed which looks like a shiny black pearl called 'sbatmi' in Tamil and 'shakti' in Malay. These are used as accessories by the 'bomoh' and 'pawang' in the mixed ritual for peace with nature as these are believed to contain mystical healing properties, and those wearing it are blessed by nature.

Modern usage has seen more common people keeping these as a charm/fashion item to feel at peace, owing to its use by celebrities. It must be noted that all palm seeds contain acid and these sbatmi are no different and should be handled with care. Sbatmi lost some popularity when it was used in a grisly ritual by Mona Fandey in 1993.


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