When your aircraft glides for a touch down
at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), take a peek through the
window. You will see a carpet of green foliage. It belongs to oil palms,
a native of Africa but thriving in Malaysia. Unlike coconut or
rice - whose significance is immediately identifiable - oil palm rarely
get a bat of the eyelash from a layperson. Because the plant yields
nothing that could be readily consumed, its importance as a versatile
plant is easily disregarded.
There are basically two types of oil palm
trees. The Elaeis guineensis is a native of West and Central
Africa. The South American oil palm, Corozo oleifera, originates
from Central and South America. Today, palm oil derived from Elaeis
guineensis is used for many commerical purposes, from making
chocolates to soaps to margarine, and maybe soon, to fueling cars.
Palm oil use can be traced back to Egypt
during the reign of the Pharaohs. In the late 1800s, anthropologist M.C.
Friedel stumbled upon an early tomb at Abydos dated 3000B.C. In it
contained an earthenware jar of an oily residue that yielded "a mass of
several kilogram's still in the shape of the vessel which contained it".
Upon careful chemical analysis, this was later determined to be palm
oil, probably Elaeis guineensis that had been partly hydrolyzed
and oxidized during its long storage. The large quantity suggested the
oil was used more for dietary purposes than as a mean of embalming. Even
as early as the mid-15th century, there were written records by European
travelers of West African locals using the oil extensively for cooking.
The palm oil Elaeis guineensis was typically self-seeded and not
planted for commercial purposes. It wasn't until the 1830s, when palm
oil export trade developed, deliberate plantings were made, beginning in
the kingdom of Dahomey.
The Elaeis guineensis is a
perennial crop that flourishes in the humid tropics between 10 degrees
north latitude and 10 degrees south latitude. It can also be found up to
20 degrees south latitude in Central and East Africa and Madagascar. It
fruits all year long and is the highest yielding oil crop. It produces
an average of four to five tones of oil per hectare per year. Its fruits
look like lush berries crowded on short branches measuring four
centimeters (1.5 inches) long. They are black when ripe, red at the base
and yield two types of oils; palm oil and palm kernel oil.
Palm oil is extracted from the pulp (mesocarp)
of the fruit. It is reddish-orange in color due to the high presence of
carotenes, and has a distinctive taste. Palm kernel oil is extracted
from the nut or kernel of the palm. It is yellowish-white in color with
a pleasantly mild flavor. The oils are today used widely in the
manufacture of various products, including margarine, shortenings,
confectionery, biscuits, soaps and cosmetics. As a food, the vitamin A
and E-rich palm oil has been included in the CODEX Alimentarius
specification of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)/World
Health Organization (WHO) as a wholesome source of food for human
consumption. Like most other edible vegetable oils, palm oil is
cholesterol-free. It also has various beneficial properties. Both
vitamins A and E are powerful anti-oxidants and occur naturally in palm
oil, one of their benefits is slowing down the ageing process.
The oil has also been shown to be
distinctly anti-thrombotic, which means it can prevent blood clots in
blood vessels or the heart. Used in a healthy diet, the oil does not
raise blood cholesterol. Quite contrary, it helps raise the level of HDL
(good) cholesterol and lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol. The oil has also
been linked to cancer inhibition in humans - especially breast cancer.
Back in the mid-1980s, palm oil became a target of a massive negative
advertising campaign. This included allegations that palm oil was
"hazardous to health". Much of it had to do with the fact that palm oil
was gaining a bigger slice of the industrial pie than the then favored
soybean. As a result, the Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia (PORIM)
was directed to spearhead the international research on palm oil.
Incidentally, PORIM is today the world's leading oil palm research
authority on the production and use of palm oil. Together with Palm Oil
Research and Licensing Authority (PORLA), the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB)
was formed to oversee the growth of the industry. Today, the cultivation
of oil palm trees is concentrated mainly in Southeast Asia with Malaysia
currently the world's largest producer and exporter of palm oil. It has
3.4 million hectares of land dedicated to oil palm plantation (Indonesia
is second with 2.5 million hectares). In 2000, Malaysia produced 10.7
million tones of oil, of which 90% was exported to more than 100
countries around the globe.
The seedlings from this humble palm first
came to South East Asia from West Africa in 1848. The Dutch shipped the
seeds from Nigeria to their experimental gardens in Buitenzorg (now
Bogor) in Java. Then in 1875, the British sent seeds from its Botanical
Garden, Kew, to the Botanic Gardens in Singapore. In the then Malaya,
the first commercial planting of the oil palm tree took place in 1917 by
Henry Fauconnier. The invention of hydrogenation of oils and fats in
1902 had created a bigger market for palm oil in the West. Hydrogenation
is a process by which liquid oils could be turned into plastic or hard
fats to a controlled degree. As a result, vegetable oil-based
"shortenings" were produced to replace lard and beef tallow as
ingredients for cakes, pastries, biscuits and frying fat. After World
War II, further improvements in palm oil refining technology and
transport methods made it possible to use largely unhydrogenated palm
oil in Western food products.
In Malaysia, palm oil cultivation expanded
rapidly after 1960 when the replanting of old rubber estates with oil
palms was further stimulated by the local estate sector and later the
Federal Land and Development Authority (FELDA) land scheme for the
landless farmers. Between 1962 and 1082, world exports of palm oil rose
from about 500,000 to 2.4 million tones per annum. Malaysia has emerged
as the world's largest producer, accounting for 56% of world production
and 85% of world exports of palm oil in 1982. Nevertheless, there were
teething problems. Progressive oil palm industry was non-existent
elsewhere in the world, which left Malaysia with nothing to model upon.
With no advanced technologies or innovation that can be immediately
obtained or stimulated, Malaysia was left on its own.
Several bodies were then established to
oversee palm oil's full potential. The Malaysian Agriculture Research
and Development Institute (MARDI), which at then was involved in crops
and livestock research, was roped in and instrumental in conducting
initial genetic research on palm oil as well as developing its consumer
uses. PORIM was later established in 1979 to continue MARDI's work and
develop activities for the palm oil industry. PORIM's extensive research
into palm oil has yielded many new discoveries in both food and non-food
applications. More recently, it extensively tested the use of palm-based
methyl esters as a diesel substitute in cars. The Malaysian government
is in the process of assessing whether it's feasible to set up a
big-scale plant to produce bio-diesel for the industry.
Other parts of the oil palm have also been
successfully adapted for commercial use. The cake residues of crushed
palm kernels are used as cattle feed in the Netherlands and Germany.
Empty fruit bunches and fibers from palm fronds are used to make
medium-density fiberboards and chipboards. The trunks could also be
developed into furniture. Consistent with the industry's zero waste and
zero burning concept, PORIM has made Malaysia's oil palm plantation more
environmentally friendly by recycling nutrient-rich oil palm residues as
fertilizers. Disposed old palms are decomposed and returned to the
fields as soil nutrients thus avoiding unnecessary burning. PORIM is
also working with Malaysia's national car manufacturer, PROTON, to
produce parts of cars from palm tree composites.
More research is currently being carried
out to further develop the use of palm oil. Every part of the plant can
be used for some purpose, none is wasted. It has full potential,
especially on downstream product use that has yet to be fully exploited.
But with PORIM as well as other agencies spearheading the development,
it will not be long before this wonder palm from Africa divulges its
secrets to the rest of the world.
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