Usually, farmers have to wait upwards of five years until palm oil plants bear fruiting bunches to figure out if they're going to yield the desired tenera pods. Knowing the SHELL gene that triggers the production of these fruits, however, gives breeders a way to test things first.
"If you screen at the nursery stage you can select what you want to field plant," Singh explains. Screening would work much the same way as a genetic test on a human. "Immediately with our tools you can check which are the seeds of the type you want," adds Ravigadevi Sambanthamurthi, head of the Advanced Biotechnology and Breeding Center at the MPOB.
That puts years back on the clock, and gives farmers a sure way to increase production. "Now with proper quality control we might have contamination of less than ten percent," Sambanthamurthi says. Currently, plantations in
Palm oil has become synonymous with illegal logging, and slash and burn tactics that leave virgin forest devastated. There are also allegations of worker abuse on plantations, and the destruction of indigenous peoples' livelihoods.
Viewing the entire palm oil industry as one ungoverned force, however, springs from "misinformation," says
Plantations also generate income for thousands of workers. "It's an avenue for poverty reduction…we cannot forget that there are people out there who are hungry," Sambanthamurthi argues.
And ultimately, palm oil crops only use up five percent of total land area farmed for oil crops globally—yet they produce almost half of the world's edible oil. But when they do infringe on natural habitat, it happens to be tropical rainforest, symbolic of the globe's diversity and a plethora of charismatic species.
Palm oil remains contentious, yet its advance is inevitable. And mapping the genome is not going to solve the problem absolutely. "Our ultimate goal was to reduce the rainforest footprint; the damage that is done by these plantations," says Martienssen. "But biology can only do so much. Policy has to be a big part of the equation."
Speaking from the
For Martienssen, the solution lies in tightening regulations, but also in motivating farmers with the practical solutions that this new research affords.
In the future, governments "will be able to offer farmers, and especially small holders, seeds that have much more predictable yields. The way I think about that is that that would be a strong incentive for those farmers to obey the law," he says. "As much as possible you want the farmer to voluntarily take up those policies."
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