THE world’s population will reach 9.8 billion by 2050, with significant growth in the least developed countries.
But arable land per person is shrinking, with a projected decline from 0.38 hectares per person in 1970 to 0.15 hectares per person by 2050.
Meanwhile, world consumption of vegetable oils has more than doubled in the past two decades, from 87 million tonnes in 2000/2001 to 208 million tonnes in 2020/2021.
This leads us to think how we can reach a point of sustainable vegetable oils to feed the growing world population, while safeguarding the natural environment and protecting social equity.
While many types of vegetable oil traded globally, palm could be the answer.
This is because palm is the most efficient oil crop in terms of land use. It requires only one-eight as much land compared to soy to produce the same quantity of oil.
Today, palm oil accounts for 6% of the cultivated land for vegetable oils globally but produces the largest percentage (over one-third) of total output.
Malaysia is the world’s second largest palm oil producer and exporter.
To progress while remaining globally competitive and relevant, Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB), as a government agency responsible for the promotion and development of the palm oil industry in Malaysia, has been undertaking relentless efforts to conduct research on new technologies.
While this is commendable and necessary, there is still a long way to go.
As the pathway to higher productivity and more sustainable development becomes clearer, so must our understandings of the jobs and skills we need to succeed.
Oil palm trees are moisture sensitive.
While the trees can withstand short drought periods, a prolonged drought stress usually results in reduced flowering and fresh fruit bunches production during the harvest in the next 6-12 months.
Instead of waiting for the low output production during dry spells, could we make a positive change?
With the advancement of technology, it is now possible to optimise irrigation application decisions by analysing real-time field data.
At first, complex infrastructural work of irrigation may seem like fiction, but with the emergence of new technologies such as the Internet of Things and sensors, coupled with the economies of scale, soon it may be a workable option to bring water to the plantations and stabilise its production.
Meanwhile, the need for digital technology in oil palm plantation management has been widely discussed, but a breakthrough has yet to materialise.
With digitalisation and advancement in wireless telecommunication wide area network, companies could capitalise on information and communications technology to increase its production efficiency.
Palm oil mill perspective
The milling sector uses the term ‘oil extraction rate’ (OER) to assess palm oil mill performance, and the national OER performance averages around 20%.
Based on Malaysian palm oil production in 2020, about one million tonnes of additional palm oil can be produced with a 1% increase in OER.
So, what could we do to achieve more oil with same amount of land?
While it is justified to claim that there have been many incremental improvements and changes in various unit operations in palm oil mills, there remains room for improvement, particularly in terms of process optimisation.
Since computing power is so much quicker and cheaper in this current information age, it is imperative to capitalise upon it to make the industry more efficient with optimisation and computer modelling.
A company can analyse the collected data to extract the information so they can plan better and have more efficient processes in place.
Data could also be used to train machine learning, which can be used to identify process abnormality.
Let’s imagine for a moment: fresh fruit bunches delivered to palm oil mills are screened for quality check.
Based on the data collected, an intelligent system automatically rejects inferior quality crops and change the sterilisation process parameters accordingly (to avoid over- or under-steaming).
This would enable palm oil mills to optimise the milling operation and keep process losses to a minimum.
What’s more important is that all data are live streamed to the cloud and authorised persons can access to it, regardless of their location.
On the other hand, the palm oil industry could take a lead by integrating biological solutions with the traditional thermo-mechanical extraction process.
While biotechnology may be new to the palm oil milling industry, it has been proven and well established in many other industries for a long time.
The use of biotechnology could now provide new efficiency pathways to improve OER.
This is more profitable, not only for palm oil companies, but also for ones that are more environmentally friendly by making better use of resources.
The Malaysian palm oil industry needs to enhance upstream productivity in order to remain competitive and relevant.
Making this transition will involve a wholesale recalibration of the industry.
The palm oil industry needs fresh talent to ensure it makes the transformation successfully.
As professionals, we need to embrace change and realise that our jobs today might be dramatically different in the not-too-distant future.
Our education and training systems need to adapt to better prepare people with the skills they will need in the future workplace. – Aug 1, 2021.
Hong Wai Onn is a chartered chemical engineer and the author of “A Chemical Engineer in the Palm Oil Milling Industry”.
The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.