A visit to Felda’s research centre
Mahbob Abdullah 

Recently I gave a talk at Felda’s Tun Abdul Razak Agricultural Research near Temerloh, Pahang and I went beyond the script of my paper for my presentation due to the good response of the senior managers present. For some time I had not been in touch with Felda although I was once on the boards of its plantations, mills, and refineries just before the time of FGV (Felda Global Ventures Holdings Bhd), and of course it was nice to be invited back to give a speech.

It was also good to see again the centre where Felda started its oil palm research.

The road from Kuala Lumpur went to the Genting pass and down again along the smooth highway before turning after the bridge at Temerloh, and then through oil palm country. The road changed to a rural setting, with new towns growing at the junctions with coffee shops and little repair shops for cars and motorcycles.

After some time I came to the Felda Residence, which is the centre of the research area. The accommodation is there with good food, and the rooms take in tourists, who come and enjoy the rural air during the school holidays and let their children cycle among the durian and rambutan trees, past ponds and football fields.

I had come a day earlier to go with the senior managers, led by Syed Salim Syed Ali (head of Cluster of R&D and Agricultural Services). Romzi Ishak was the organiser, and he had demonstrations ready to show the work on weeding, and new formulations for pest control. In the seed production field, we saw how pollination was done under strict control.

In another part of the field, Dr Sharifah Shahrul Rabiah Syed Alwee showed the types of palm bunches that are harvested from the genetic base collected over the years in Africa and South America. Her team is breeding the palms to find the best yielders. Later, she gave a paper on Discovering Future Planting Materials for the Betterment of the Oil Palm Industry.

As a result of research done by the industry over the years, the increase in yield of oil per hectare has increased. The better yield was helped by the discovery of crosses of Dura with Pisifera to create the Tenera. It has more oil content in the bunch. In addition there is further improvement in the selection of Dura mother palms and Pisifera palms which give the pollen.

I have found Sharifah to be very passionate about her work, and she is very articulate. In another site, near the KL International Airport, she works in a tissue culture laboratory that can produce about two million plantlets per year of palms propagated for high yield and high oil extraction rates.

That afternoon we were also shown the nursery with young seedlings grown in peat moss to increase vigour, and reduce the culling rate. In another spot I saw the famous palm that enjoyed special treatment, getting water and fertiliser constantly. Each year the bunch production often exceeded twice that from palms depending on normal rainfall and infrequent application of fertiliser. So it is clear that with more care and attention, the palms can give at least double the crop, or 40 tonnes per hectare without much additional cost.


Bringing in insects

Another step is the introduction of the insect Elaeidobius kamerunicus from Africa, which was reunited with oil palm, after the completion of the scientific study in 1981. The idea of pollination using insects came from a planter Datuk Leslie Davidson. He had noticed in Africa that there were tiny weevils flying to the female flowers from the male flowers, and when he saw they also had pollen on their bodies he could guess that some of the pollen would have been shed on the female flowers.

In Malaysia, the palms had to be hand-pollinated by thousands of workers. When a prominent entomologist, Datuk Dr Rahman Syed, was engaged to do a study in 1980, he could confirm that the insects were indeed a major agent in pollination of the oil palm. Much time has lapsed since then, the population may not be very active due to inbreeding, and researchers at Felda should consider a study to see how new batches can be allowed in so pollination can improve again.

In my talk I had gone on to say that research work in the centre has to be kept at the same high level as during the times of past scientists including Tang Teng Lai, Chong Gong Gong and more recently, S Palani. The quality of Felda seedlings is known in many countries. Felda is also increasing its production of clonal palms. The centre is also used to disseminate information and knowledge to improve productivity.


Demand to rise with population growth

The future is bright. It is natural that with the increase in population in the world, now at seven billion, we will require more edible oil. As countries become richer, the people would want to buy and use more, not only for cooking, but for biscuits, confectionery, and beauty and medical products.

I had stressed on the labour shortage, and research is therefore even more important in finding new ways to reduce the use of labour. The answer may lie in new technologies. We need to know what they are, and how they can be used to help. It means there is more to read, and to discuss, and therefore a good standard of English is essential. I did not hear any objection to that. The senior managers in front of me got into active discussions on how that can be achieved among the young and I said that I did it through a lot of reading on anything that I liked.

I went out of my text by saying that skills need to be expanded in other areas too, such as leadership, as well as knowledge of figures, calculation of profits or cost benefits, and the ability to write and speak well. A person must enjoy walking and checking in the field, and have a passion for his work.

The value of a manager to the business is of course even higher if he is a good trainer. Plantations must try to welcome the young to visit and get an insight into country life. A few might wish to join each year.

As older ones retire, the best talent must take their place. It is wise to have managers trained in your own culture than to get one from somewhere else in mid-career. Continuity can help Felda achieve even bigger yields in the field.

Research must go on. It will need more funds. One way is to increase the price of the oil palm seeds that Felda sells, and which are in great demand. The additional funds can go to more research work, and improve the salaries for scientists and managers. Following their achievements in breeding for higher yields, the managers can take up the task of repeating the same results in the field.

Mahbob Abdullah is a former planter. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 253.