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close this bookBlending of New and Traditional Technologies - Case Studies (ILO - WEP, 1984, 312 p.)
close this folderPART 2: CASE STUDIES
View the documentChapter 3. Application of microcomputers to Portugal’s agricultural management*
View the documentChapter 4. Off-line uses of microcomputers in selected developing countries*
View the documentChapter 5. The use of personal computers in Italian biogas plants*
View the documentChapter 6. Microelectronics in textile production: A family firm (United Kingdom) and cottage industry with AVL looms (United States)
View the documentChapter 7. Microelectronics in small/medium enterprises in the United Kingdom*
View the documentChapter 8. Integration of old and new technologies in the Italian (Prato) textile industry*
View the documentChapter 9. The use of numerically controlled machines on traditional lathes: The Brazilian capital goods industry*
View the documentChapter 10. Electronic load-controlled mini-hydroelectric projects: Experiences from Colombia, Sri Lanka and Thailand*
View the documentChapter 11. The application of biotechnology to metal extraction: The case of the Andean countries*
View the documentChapter 12. Cloning of Palm Oil Trees in Malaysia*
View the documentChapter 13. Technological Change in Palm Oil in Costa Rica*
View the documentChapter 14. Biotechnology applications to some African fermented foods*
View the documentChapter 15. Use of satellite remote-sensing techniques in West Africa*
View the documentChapter 16. India’s rural educational television broadcasting via satellites*
View the documentChapter 17. New construction materials for developing countries*
View the documentChapter 18. Photovoltaic solar-powered pump irrigation in Pakistan*
View the documentChapter 19. Photovoltaic power supply to a village in Upper Volta*

Chapter 12. Cloning of Palm Oil Trees in Malaysia*

*Prepared by John B. Elkington, Director, Bioresources Ltd. and Associate Editor of Biotechnology Bulletin, United Kingdom, on behalf of the ILO.

THIS CASE STUDY focuses on the application of biotechnology to the agricultural sector, namely, the cloning of major crop plants. Although the research work sponsored by Unilever Company is having a considerable impact on oil palm industry in Malaysia, field trials of cloned plants are also planned or are underway in a number of other developing countries, namely, Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Zaire.

In a well-publicised link-up during 1982, two joint venture companies were established by Sime Darby Berhad, the Malaysian plantation-based group, in collaboration with the International Plant Research Institute (IPRI), San Carlos, California. The companies were designed to act as vehicles for introducing the new biotechnologies, and plant genetic engineering in particular, to the ASEAN (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand).

The announcement of the establishment of these companies was taken seriously given that Sime Darby and its associated companies control over 80,000 hectares of tropical agricultural land and that IPRI was reputed to be the largest privately-owned company devoted solely to the application of genetic engineering to plants. The genetic improvement of such vital crop plants as cassava, the date palm, rice and rubber, were among the major targets for the companies.

At the time IPRI employed about 130 people and worked on the development of disease-resistant, stress-adapted or salt-tolerant cereals and vegetables; high-yielding potato varieties that can be propagated by seed rather than by tuber; potato and cassava varieties with increased potential as biomass sources; and on new processes for using photosynthetic cells to produce commercially significant chemicals. No one doubts that biotechnology will have major implications for world agriculture and forestry, but this area remains a high-risk one for new businesses.

Unilever work on the cloning of oil palms and other crop plants, including the coconut palm, began in 1968. It has been successful in applying biotechnology to agriculture: its development of a tissue culture method for the propagation of selected palms represents the first application of the technique to a major food crop. Unilever, which reported sales of US$23,136 million in 1982, also reported that sharp falls in commodity prices had cut profits from its plantation activities significantly, although record yields of both palm oil and kernels had been achieved as a result of the introduction of an oil palm pollinating insect from a West African country to the Malaysian plantations - a development whose employment implications are considered later in this chapter.

In 1982, Unilever’s expenditure on research and development (R and D) was US$334 million, compared with US$284 million in 1981, a sum which was divided between its research facilities in the Federal Republic of Germany, India, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States in company development laboratories in over 40 countries. Three broad areas make up the technical base of Unilever: physico-chemical science, bioscience and manufacturing technology. In the past decade, although physico-chemical science has continued to progress, it has been increasingly overshadowed by the spectacular advances in the biosciences and in manufacturing technology. A strong bioscience programme has been developed within the company’s research division, which is increasingly shifting its focus towards the commercial applications of the emerging technologies. Apart from its work on the cloning of oil palms and coconut palms, and on the eventual automation of the cloning system, Unilever’s bioscience work includes enzyme processes for the transformation of vegetable fats, the improvement of polysaccharides as food ingredients, and the manufacture of flavour components.

Unilever’s tissue culture work has cost it about US$2.6 million to date, while private companies in Malaysia have spent an estimated M$10 million.1 Field trials of the clonal oil palms are now taking place or are planned in a number of countries: in Brazil (with third party testing by EMBRAPA; the government research organisation); Colombia (Unilever plus third party plantings); Indonesia (Harrisons and Crosfield); Papua New Guinea (Harrisons and Crosfield); and Zaire (Unilever). But the major field trials to date have been carried out in Malaysia where a big laboratory was set up in 1976 near Kuala Lumpur. About 200 hectares have now been planted with clonal oil palms.


Malaysia’s economy has been hard hit by slumping commodity prices, since its principal foreign exchange earnings come from exports of palm oil, petroleum, rubber, timber and tin. In late 1983 the government wanted to cut its 1983 budget, with more stringent measures also expected in the 1984 budget. Malaysia’s external borrowings had risen sharply since 1978. From 1980 to 1982, the country’s foreign debt rose by approximately 140 per cent. In 1983 the country was expected to borrow an amount almost equal to total external debt in 1980.

There have been fears in some quarters that Malaysia’s debt problems could become as severe as those faced by Brazil and Mexico if urgent preventive measures were not taken. However, government officials pointed out that Malaysia’s debt service ratio was still a manageable 4.9 per cent, compared with 20 per cent for the Philippines.

These economic problems have compounded the difficulties already faced by the Malaysian Government in its attempts to push through its New Economic Policy which aims to ensure that the bumiputras (the generic term for the Malays and other native groups) own at least 30 per cent of the economy by 1990.

The government’s plan to ensure that Malaysia becomes a leader among Third World industrial nations is the main reason behind its so-called “look-East” policy. This policy seeks to reduce dependence on the West in an effort to emulate the success of such “economic miracle” countries as Japan and the Republic of Korea while maintaining a hold on the country’s primary commodities.

For its livelihood, nearly half of the economically active population of Malaysia continues to depend on agriculture which contributes about 30 per cent to the total gross national product. About 3 per cent of the land area in Sarawak and Sabah and 29 per cent in West Malaysia are under cultivation. The most important cash crops are rubber (the country’s second largest foreign exchange earner, after mineral oil, although shifting commodity prices often make it a close runner with palm oil), palm oil and forest products. Most of the country’s exports are made up of raw materials. Five commodities - crude petroleum, palm oil, rubber, timber and tin - account for about 75 per cent of all exports.

The Oil Palm

The oil palm, Elaeis guineensis, provides about 15 per cent of the vegetable oil traded on world markets. The crop is grown in plantations in Africa (in numerous small holdings), South East Asia and South America. It flourishes in the humid tropics, generally within 10 degrees latitude of the Equator. From Africa, the oil palm was taken to South America and South East Asia. Indonesia and Malaysia now supply the bulk of the world’s palm oil exports.

Oil palms provide two distinct types of oil. First, there is palm kernel oil which is very similar to coconut oil and comes from the nut in the centre of the fruit. Second, there is palm oil proper, which comes from the fleshy mesocarp surrounding the nut. The yield of palm oil far exceeds that of any other oil crop, reaching averages of six metric tonnes per hectare in well-managed plantations under favourable conditions. Clonal palms are expected to increase yields by 30 per cent. The oil is widely used for cooking and in margarine and soap manufacture. It is also increasingly being used as a renewable source of energy: a cocoa factory in Zaire is already running on palm oil rather than fuel oil. Palm kernel oil is particularly valued by the detergent industry.

Today’s oil palm seeds are produced by hybridisation between a thick shelled “dura” mother palm and a pollen parent with shell-less fruit, the “pisifera” type, which is often female-sterile. The resulting “tenera” trees produce fruit of moderate shell thickness and enhanced mesocarp oil yield. Among the best tenera progenies, there are still big variations in the yield and quality of oil produced by individual trees. By identifying and multiplying these elite individuals, it is possible to create new uniform high-yielding clones with performance 20 to 30 per cent better than today’s averages.

It is estimated that by the end of the decade there will be a need for at least 30 million plants a year. Unfortunately, seed from tenera palms does not grow true to type. The only way to maintain the type is by vegetative propagation of a clone. Many crops are already propagated as clones, including rubber, cocoa, tea and coffee. But, until recently, there has been no suitable method for the vegetative propagation of the oil palm. The oil palm does not branch and, since it grows from a single terminal bud, it is not possible to take cuttings for propagation. Unilever began its research on clonal propagation of the oil palm in 1968 and has since overcome the major obstacles to the growth of oil palm tissues and to the subsequent regeneration of plants in large numbers. The resulting plants are all genetically identical to the original palm selected for cloning.

The Tissue Culture Method

Tissue culture methods are now used widely for the propagation of many horticultural plants, including orchids, lilies, ferns, chrysanthemums and strawberries. Most laboratories use shoot tip or “mericloning” methods to stimulate the proliferation of buds which are subsequently rooted and planted out. However, this method has not been successful with the oil palm.

Unilever’s method requires the intermediate development of a disorganised cellular mass known as “callus”. This has the advantage that it is not necessary to kill the source palm (or “ortet”), but it is possible to start with any piece of tissue capable of growth, such as roots, young leaf base or even flower buds. In practice, it has proved covenient to start with actively growing roots. The tissue is disinfected and placed in a special nutrient medium. With appropriate stimulus from growth hormones, the cells in the tissue multiply to form the callus.

Once the callus has formed, and this is by no means a guaranteed step, it can be repeatedly sub-divided and will grow indefinitely in culture, so long as it is fed and tended with regular transfers to fresh medium. Once the tissues have become disorganised and are no longer identifiably root or leaf cells, they have the potential to reorganise in the form of embryo-like bodies which can develop into complete plants. At present, the reorganisation step is still slow and unpredictable. Controlling this process remains the major challenge for Unilever’s scientists, although they are also looking at ways in which the whole process might eventually be automated. Clearly, its advantage is that one successful culture can give rise to an unlimited number of individual plants (or “ramets”) of a new clone. But palms in general have proved difficult to grow in culture. Other scientists working with oil, date and coconut palms have met similar problems: browning of the tissues, slow growth, poor and erratic regeneration.

A key area of the research programme has involved a long search for the correct formulations for the nutrient media, the optimum time for each culture transfer, the right sequence of different stimuli from hormones in the medium, and the best conditions of light and temperature. The medium contains over 30 components and the number of possible combinations of formulations, sequence and timing is almost infinite. The work has involved the use of such advanced techniques as electron microscopy, autoradiography, radioisotope and immunofluorescence labelling of specific proteins, plus the full armoury of modern cell biology.

But the laboratory has been only one link in the chain. The first step is the plant breeder’s hybridisation programme, which creates the progenies from which selections can be made. Selection, to be successful, also depends on the measurement of a variety of different palm characteristics. High yield in a particular palm may result from a tree growing in a particularly favoured spot rather than from any genetic superiority, for example. The scientists need to know how efficient the palm is in converting photosynthetically produced dry matter into fruit, how much fruit is contained in a bunch, how much oil there is in the fruit, and its quality in terms of oil composition, colour and stability to oxidation.

In addition, potential ortets may be required to carry other properties, such as disease resistance, drought tolerance and economy of fertiliser use. Small fronds, to permit higher planting densities, and shorter trunks, to ensure a long economic life and easier harvesting, are other desirable features.

The essential steps in this total process are as follows:

(i) Plant breeding to produce individual plants with the best combination of genetic qualities;

(ii) Selection of the best palms from the progeny trials;

(iii) Sampling of selected trees: actively growing healthy tissues from root or crown can be used;

(iv) Disinfection to remove all contaminating micro-organisms, a process which can result in the destruction or damaging of some of the tissue;

(v) Initiation of growth of tissues in culture;

(vi) Culture multiplication;

(vii) Plantlet regeneration;

(viii) Hardening off for transfer to soil;

(ix) Planting out in the pre-nursery;

(x) Transfer to normal oil palm nursery;

(xi) Evaluation of uniformity;

(xii) Field planting in experimental trials;

(xiii) Evaluation and selection of the best clones for various environments;

(xiv) Multiplication of the selected clones for sale as clonal plantlets.

Tissue culture provides plant breeders with a vital new tool. Not only does it enable selected palms to be stabilised and propagated, but it permits the multiplication of individual palms which are themselves outstanding - but whose seedling progenies would be very mixed. Of particular interest are hybrids between the West African palm and the South American species of oil palm (Elaeis olifera). The South American palm combines short stature, resistance to some important diseases and a high level of unsaturated fatty acids. Its main disadvantage is a low oil yield. Hybridisation with West African palms produces palms with the good qualities of both species. Crossing back to West African palms can further improve the yield so that some individual second generation hybrids have outstanding yield and quality. Seedlings of these outstanding individuals would be quite variable but their desirable qualities can be retained by vegetative propagation.


The first clonal oil palms were field planted at Unipalmol Kluang in January 1977, having been sent from Unilever’s Colworth Laboratories as small bare-root plants in March 1976. These palms bore their first fruit in November 1978 and have proved to be very uniform in their fruiting behaviour. But these first experimental clones were derived from seedlings, not from proven palms, to test cloned seedling material against the seedlings themselves. The clones have shown remarkable conformity within clone, but distinct differences in oil composition and other characteristics between clones. The next task was to develop clones from the very best material available from the breeding programmes, an activity which has been undertaken at the Bakasawit Clonal Oil Palm Research Unit, Banting, Malaysia.

Private companies in Malaysia, which have spent some M$10 million to date on clonal oil palm R and D, and which funded much of the early work at Unilever’s Colworth House laboratory, now employ about 50 people at their Kuala Lumpur laboratory. These companies are Unilever and Harrisons Malaysian Plantations, with holdings in the laboratory at 60 per cent and 40 per cent respectively. This facility is able to cope with the complete range of cloning work.


Unifield is Unilever’s new joint venture with Harrison and Crosfield. It has a 20,000 square foot factory on the St Martin’s Way industrial estate, near Bedford, United Kingdom. Half of this space has been developed to date at a capital cost expected to reach US$780,000 by the end of 1983. Having started life in a corner of the Colworth Laboratory, Unifield produced about 10,000 cloned plants and employed 15 people in its first year of operation (sufficient to plant about 60 trial hectares). In 1983, the production figure reached 100,000 plants with an employment of 30 people which included 14 to 15 part-timers representing seven man-days a week. These are largely housewives who work in the mornings or afternoons. At the current rate of productivity, this level of staffing should be adequate for the production target of 200,000 plants planned for 1984.

The ultimate production target is likely to be one million plants a year, which could involve a quadrupling of the existing staff. To date, there has been a low turnover in these part-time staff members, despite the fact that there are other employment opportunities in the Bedford area, with local employers including other high technology companies such as Texas Instruments.

The working conditions would be familiar to anyone who has worked in biotechnology laboratories elsewhere. The threat of contamination of the cultures means that the unit operates to a high level of sterility. Seated at sterile cabinets, using medical scalpels and forceps, white-coated “production operatives” clone and process the plantlets. Four to five of the full-time staff members have scientific backgrounds and two have doctorates.

As far as the plantation side of the operation is concerned, Unilever employs 3,200 people to manage the 13,000 hectares of its Malaysian plantations, equivalent to one person for every four hectares. This ratio has changed relatively little: in 1973, for example, Unilever had 2,500 employees on 10,500 hectares, or 1 employee per 4.2 hectares. Only 50 to 100 people work in the processing mills, with each mill processing fruit from about 5,000 hectares of plantation. However, employment in these mills (which have represented something of a pollution problem) has dropped markedly with today’s figure perhaps 25 per cent of that 30 years ago.

Weevil Replaces Human Pollinators

The change in oil palm pollination methods in Malaysia is a significant and recent development with employment implications. When clonal oil palms have made much greater inroads on the plantation they may have an equivalent effect, but the introduction of the tiny weevil, Elaeidobius kamerunicus, from West Africa has had a dramatic impact on plantation productivity and employment patterns in Malaysia in a very short period of time. In a sense, it can also be considered an agricultural biotechnology.

For a long time, it was thought that oil palm pollination was achieved by the wind. In Malaysia, labourers were employed to pollinate the palms, using long syringes. Assisted pollination cost M$75 to 170 per hectare per year, depending on the terrain; and is a tedious, and back-breaking job. It could account for a maximum of 20 per cent of the labour force employed on the plantation in areas where pollination presented a particular problem.

The Unilever subsidiary, Unipalmol, had pollination problems on its estates in Sabah. Because the oil palm is native to West Africa, Unipalmol sent a team there to search for a solution - where it was discovered that pollination was, in fact, achieved largely thanks to the unpaid efforts of the weevil. Introduced to the Sabah and other Malaysian estates, the weevil has achieved very substantial increases in yields. These improvements are important because, although the yield of the oil palm is already unusually high when compared with other oil crop plants, palm oil competes in international markets with such commodities as the soya bean - and any competitive edge is welcome.

Like rubber before it, the oil palm was cultivated extensively by back-breaking, cheap and freely available labour. Now that labour is becoming more expensive with Malaysian plantations generally finding great difficulty in attracting and retaining workers, the short-term solution has been the recruitment of foreign labour. It is estimated that there are as many as 200,000 Indonesians (many of them illegal immigrants) working on Malaysian estates. But the massive and continuing influx of foreign workers in the past decade has created social and political problems. The Malaysian Government has drawn up a plan for the more orderly recruitment of foreign “guest workers”.

In fact, the labour problem may well be aggravated, when large plantation acreages planted during the 1960s become due for replanting by the mid-1980s. In such circumstances innovation is clearly welcome. Another type of biological control was developed to cope with rat infestations of oil palm plantations. The rats ate and otherwise damaged significant quantities of fruit. Snakes and poison were used, but it was not until the barn owl was introduced to the plantation that the rat problems were checked. For an ecologist this sort of approach makes a great deal of sense, moving the palm plantation a little way back towards the complexity and diversity of the tropical rain forest environment in which it originally flourished. But such changes inevitably have implications for those employed on the plantations.

On average, each palm produces one bunch of fruit a month, these bunches ripening unpredictably throughout the year. As a consequence, workers have to tour the plantations regularly to check whether particular bunches have ripened. On average they go round once every ten days. Obviously, it would be difficult to mechanise such checks, but work has been proceeding at Malaysia’s Palm Oil Research Institute to see if harvesting could be mechanised to any degree. The furthest this work has got to date involves getting the human harvester closer to the palm on a hydraulic ladder. But this approach also involves a driver for the vehicle carrying the hydraulic ladder, resulting in little if any, productivity improvement. However, it does make the work easier, which could help with labour recruitment and retention.

The introduction of clonal oil palms could facilitate some mechanisation if the clones were shorter. It will certainly help to cut the number of trips which the workers need to make to check on ripening fruit. With the various members of a clone all tending to ripen at the same time, and their position marked, it should be possible to predict accurately where a ripe bunch will be found and when it will need picking.

In summary, the workers freed from pollination have been redeployed around the plantation; the new pollination methods have not actually led to redundancies. But they have reduced the total number of new workers likely to be needed in the future - although there is a confounding factor here, and it also holds true of the introduction of clonal palms. More productive palms mean more oil and require more harvesting and processing effort.

As far as the impact of clonal palms is concerned, a plantation of clones would produce about 30 per cent more oil per hectare than an uncloned plantation although this will not necessarily mean a requirement for 30 per cent more workers. The reason that the pollination workers have been able to find other employment on the plantations is that pollination previously was not very effective. The higher yields now resulting require more harvesting and processing work. But it is believed that the introduction of clonal palms will be achieved without any significant increase in the number of people employed. Improvements in human productivity will soak up the employment opportunities which might otherwise have been generated.


At the moment clonal plantlets cost US$3.75, compared with about US$0.21 for oil palms grown from seed. But the rapid improvements in cloning technology and the considerably improved yields coming from clonal palms suggest that this is very much a technology which is here to stay. As Unilever has put it: “Today’s first clones are just the beginning of a revolution of the oil palm crop of the future.”


1. Some figures are given in Malaysian dollars when the lack of specific dates prevented conversion to United States dollars.