World Rainforest Movement

Genetically-modified oil palms: The final threat

Despite the numerous social and environmental impacts of monoculture oil palm plantations, the industry is continuously trying to increase productivity and lower costs, which can only lead to even more serious impacts on people and nature. It is the system’s perverse logic. Within that logic, the obvious step forward is genetic manipulation of oil palms. Not only to increase productivity, but to alter the end-product: palm oil. And they are already working in that direction.

Malaysian Palm Oil Association chief executive M.R. Chandran has publicly declared that “the priority should be to develop transgenic palms for better oil quality, yield and minimal height”. To work in that direction, he added, “the industry must build alliances with established R&D institutions, universities and industry players, both locally and overseas, to make possible a quantum leap in applied and adaptive research work.”

For him, clones are not enough. Chandran said that “the national CPO [Crude palm oil]
yield has stagnated at 3.6 to 3.8 tonnes/ha in the past 13 years even though new clones developed can produce as much as 6.5 to 7.5 tonnes/ha.”, adding that “the industry should take advantage of the Government’s subsidy offer of RM1,000 per hectare to carry out accelerated replanting with superior planting materials and with mechanisation in mind”.

Research in this direction is already well advanced. In 1998, the press informed that indepth studies had already been undertaken by local plant biologists and geneticists to create genetically-engineered palm oil which would be able to produce “the kind of oil, flavour and scent the detergent and cooking oil manufacturers, the chocolate makers, the beauty industry, the perfume designers and salad makers desire.” So the aim of this research is clearly to transform a natural product into an artificial one adapted to industry’s needs.

This is the final threat to both natural environments and to people who consume palm oil and its different products. Smaller plants will allow further mechanization in harvesting. New qualities will be introduced to palm oil to adapt it to industry’s –not consumers’– needs. The effects on human health of the resulting genetically-manipulated products could be serious. Impacts on the natural environments could be irreversible. And the whole process would have only one reason: profit making for industry and trade.

Article based on information from: “Palm Oil Most Studied Commodity Today” By Cheah Chor Sooi, The New Straits Times Sunday, September 6, 1998, “Surviving the low prices of palm oil” By Yong Tiam Kui, New Straits Times, April 8 2001.