Fiji Sun (18/08/2020) When I first visited Fiji about six years ago, I did not pay much attention to the natural vegetation.
I wrongly believed that there were oil palm trees among the palms that I saw.
It was only when I came back about two years ago that I realised that there were virtually no oil palms.
I found that odd and decided that I would introduce the tree to Fiji, even if as a training farm for agricultural students of the Fiji National University.
On further enquiry, I realised that there was an attempt to grow the oil palm in Fiji in the past, but the programme was discontinued.
A few old oil palm trees can still be seen around Fiji.
I have met investors who are eager to grow the oil palm in Fiji again. This will be a welcome development.
Firstly, what is oil palm?
The most important oil palm is the African one, which has been grown in its native home in West and Central Africa for over 5000 years.
Currently, it can be found all over the tropics, including the Pacific.
The fruit yields a red oil and is known to produce the most oil of all trees known to mankind.
I grew up among oil palm trees, so to speak, as most Fijians grow among coconuts.
However, in my area of Nigeria, until recently, no one made any deliberate effort to plant the oil palm trees.
The mature fruits, which fell off the tree, simply sprouted and grew wherever they could find the soil.
It was all typical of the subsistent farming system in the region.
Farther to the south, in the southeast and parts of the southwest, some more enterprising farmers set up plantations and for a long while, Nigeria was the leading producer of palm products, from the fruit oil, to the kernel (seed) oil and palm kernel meal.
The oil palm tree is very much like the coconut, virtually every part of the tree is useful.
The oil palm tree may hold a few aces over the coconut.
For example, it produces two oils – from the fruit pulp and from the seed.
The fruit oil is red while the kernel or seed oil varies from clear to light brown, depending on the method of processing.
The oil palm tree produces very durable timber for building, the leaves can be woven into all kinds of covers; it produces brooms and the fronds can be used for fencing and roofing.
Prior to independence and until the mid-1970s, the oil palm was among the crops that drove Nigeria’s economy.
It did this along with other notable crops like peanuts, cocoa, rubber, cotton and sesame.
Nigeria at the time was number one in palm produce.
As agricultural production began to pick up, the country discovered petroleum in the south and offshore.
This was followed by the Middle East wars of the mid-1960s and 1970s, which created a boom for African petroleum producers.
That was the killer for agriculture.
Nigeria earned so much from petroleum that it helped some countries to pay their workers.
The events are so similar to the story of agriculture in Fiji, but spurred by different events.
Nigeria has started getting back to agriculture, as petroleum prices plummet, diving to negative territory at one point recently.
Oil palm is one of the focal crops being regenerated in Nigeria since the country has a research station completely dedicated to it.
However, Malaysia, which took seedlings from Nigeria and Indonesia, are now so far ahead in breeding efforts that some Nigerian farmers are sourcing seedlings from Malaysia rather than from local suppliers.
Indonesia and Malaysia are the current leaders in oil palm production.
It pays to use the much-improved super-hybrids now being developed in Malaysia.
Pool of wealth
Fiji can tap into the oil palm pool of wealth.
The palm would grow in many parts of Fiji.
For maximum yield, it does require a lot of evenly distributed rain (2500-4000 mm), bright sunshine of 5-6 hours per day, high temperatures (22-33oC) and deep loamy soils.
Although the oil palm grows in many areas of the tropics, it is most productive between 10degrees north and south of the equator.
Fiji lies just outside the main oil palm belt but the tree has been found to produce outside this zone.
Fiji’s small landmass also confers some tropical conditions.
Some producers also irrigate, if rainfall is inadequate while it is possible, in the long-term, for researchers in Fiji to work at developing varieties to match the local conditions.
There are other issues to be aware of, which border on politics.
But Indonesia and Malaysia have weathered the storm, on behalf of new entrants to the industry.
The first attack on the oil palm industry came in the mid-1960s, when research, largely funded by a rival oil producer, the American Soybean Association, began to publish data, which claimed that palm oil, as a somewhat saturated oil, could cause circulatory problems.
Most of these claims have long been dispelled through research by more independent researchers.
Palm oil has a unique structure, tending to contain saturated and poly-unsaturated fatty acids in a mix that has been shown to be beneficial to health.
This is the new attraction to palm oil, but because it is so readily available on the world market, it is used in so many processed foods, especially confectionery.
Palm oils (fruit and seed) drove the cosmetic industry for so many centuries and still do today.
The claim on health failed to stick, so the new claim is that the oil palm industry is destroying the native forests of Indonesia, Malaysia and other major palm producers.
This claim is not entirely true; firstly, the leading producers are mainly re-planting old plantations, in order to increase yield per hectare.
Although the oil palm tree remains in production for up to 70 years, production declines when the trees are about 50-55 years old.
Both Indonesia and Malaysia now badge their products to indicate which ones are produced in an environmentally sustainable way.
In all this political brawl, one must not lose sight of the fact that the New World was not all grassy plains many centuries ago; the forests were cleared for economic activities.
Poor countries should be supported to farm, in a responsible way.
One must not forget that an oil palm plantation is 10 times more productive than soybean, sunflower or rapeseed because the palm fruit and kernel both provide usable oil.
Palm oil is rich in nutrients, which have been shown to prevent or reduce vitamin A deficiency, cancer, brain disease, aging, obesity, malaria, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and cyanide poisoning.
The oil can be used locally for making soaps and other cosmetics, but it is used in many food products.
The oil palm tree also produces a sweet but strong white wine, which is rich in yeast and many healthy compounds.
Although the wine is consumed without further processing in many countries, it is now being bottled in West Africa and exported.
It is a major hit with tourists and locals alike.
The oil palm is worth a trial in Fiji, maybe first on a limited scale.
New varieties begin to produce at three years old, so it won’t be a long wait to get results.
Read more at https://fijisun.com.fj/2020/08/18/oil-palm-the-other-tree-of-life/