December 12, 2019, by Lexi Earl

Understanding more about oil palm farmed by smallholders

This post is written by Dr Thomas D Alcock and Dr Christina Vimala Supramaniam

During a recent trip to Malaysia, including visits to the University of Nottingham Malaysia campus, Dr Thomas D Alcock and Dr Lexi Earl stopped by some smallholder oil palm plantations to get a feel for production practices. This is what they found.

Our journey to visit Sungai Gulang-Gulang Estate at Tanjung Karang, Selangor, Malaysia, took around two hours. Along the way, we saw countless oil palm plantations of varying degrees of maturity, demonstrating the popularity of this crop among growers in Malaysia. Indeed, according to data from FAOSTAT, almost 60% of arable land in Malaysia is used for growing this one crop, and around 35% of total palm oil production is from Malaysia. We were joined by Dr Christina Vimala Supramaniam, Associate Professor at University of Nottingham Malaysia, and Director of the Nottingham Centre for Sustainable Palm Oil, and two of her students, Nur Izzati Ridzuan and Khoo Chee Chang.

Dr Thomas D Alcock (far left) and Dr Christina Vimala Supramaniam (second right) with researchers from UNMC and smallholder farmers

The farm we visited was fairly small, at approximately only 2 hectares. This reflects the situation of many oil palm producers in Malaysia, 60% of which are smallholders. The trees, which were 10-15 years old, were quite widely spaced to allow them to continue to grow as they mature. The oil palm usable life cycle is around 30 years, with the first fruits appearing around three years after planting, and production starting to drop off after around 25 years. Fresh fruit bunches can be harvested twice a month, all year round.

Fruits of oil palm

Whilst the farm looked much like a forest to us, the wide spacing and general lack of biodiversity hardly reflects a tropical rainforest. A recent study by Dislich et al (2017) found that 11 out of 14 ecosystem functions analysed showed a net decrease in level of function in oil palm plantations relative to natural forest. This is perhaps unsurprising, but worthy of mention. That said, there are many features of the production system we saw that seem to contrast with perhaps more damaging impacts of many other crops. The long production span of oil palm hugely reduces the regularity of soil disturbances compared to annual crops, such as wheat or soybean,  thus reducing soil erosion. Soil health is further benefitted by the widespread practice of using a cover crop between tree rows. This works to maintain soil structure and prevents the soil from drying out. Some producers favour Mucuna bacteata, a legume species, which provides a further benefit as an organic source of nitrogen to the oil palm trees. Fallen plant matter, including palm fronds, are generally gathered and left to decompose in the field, which enables additional nutrient retention. As a large, tree species, oil palm also sequesters carbon throughout its life cycle, thus reducing its net greenhouse gas emissions. It should be noted however that deforestation to create new oil palm plantations emits large amounts of greenhouse gases which are unlikely to be balanced by those sequestered by oil palm trees during their life-cycle.

Scenes from a smallholder plantation

Tom Alcock also visited Havys palm oil mill in Pahang, in order to see downstream processing practices. The first sight in the mill area was a huge field of palm trees being pulled down. This is in line with the general practice to replace trees every 25-30 years, but still looked pretty devastating. On the plus side, much of the organic matter from the felled trees was left in the field in rows, with new trees to be planted in between. By the time the new trees are ready to harvest, this will have degraded and will help to maintain soil fertility.

Dr Thomas D Alcock visiting the mill

Almost all material received by the mill is used, even so far as spare fibres that are used for mattress filling! Organic fertilisers are also produced from empty fruit bunches, decanter cake and palm kernel shells. These are not suitable for palm oil on its own but can complement chemical fertilizers as they promote slow release of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. A further hugely interesting co-product of palm oil processing is methane. This is emitted from wastewater used in the sterilisation steps of palm oil production. If left to be released into the air, this is hugely environmentally damaging. However, if methane capture technologies are used, as they were in Havys mill, this can be burned as a biofuel in order to produce energy. This is sufficient to provide all the electricity required by Havys mill, with some left over that is sold to the grid.

Decaying oil palm within the plantation

Oil palm is the largest source of vegetable oil globally, closely followed by soybean. In line with demand, the quantity of palm oil produced has been steadily increasing over the last 20 years, at an average rate of around 7% each year. Its popularity among growers is surely linked with its highly productive nature, yielding around 20 tonnes of fruit and 4 tonnes of oil per hectare. In contrast, soybean yields around 3 tonnes of beans and only around half a tonne of oil per hectare. Palm oil’s level of production has provided huge economic incentive to both large companies and smallholder farmers. However, the generation of new plantations has come at the global cost of deforestation of primary rainforest. For example, to this day, Indonesian producers are thought to be using slash-and-burn practices to clear land for oil palm, as well as other crops.There have been strong efforts in recent years to reduce the impact of palm oil production. For example, the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) standard, which will be made mandatory for Malaysian producers by the end of 2019, favours zero-burning practices and prohibits planting on land with high biodiversity value. This is following zero-burning or licensed burning policies that have been developed over the last 20 years. Governmental restrictions on burning also exist in Indonesia, but are infrequently implemented. What remains to be empirically deduced is whether or not greenhouse gas emissions and loss of ecosystem functions would have been worse, had the global demand for oil been met with an alternative crop with a greater land-use requirement. The Future Food Beacon will be investigating this and general sustainability issues surrounding oil crop production in a new project starting in early 2020. Watch this space.



Dislich C, Keyel AC, Salecker J, Kisel Y, Meyer KM, Auliya M et al. 2017. A review of the ecosystem functions in oil palm plantations, using forests as a reference system. Biological Reviews 92: 1539-69.

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