How palm oil gets off the trees and into our products

When I came back from Borneo just before Christmas I promised you an insight into how oil palm is grown. Whilst in Malaysia I visited two palm oil plantations.

Firstly I went to Sandakan in the NE of Borneo (famous for the orang-utan sanctuary) where I spent the day with IOI Loders Croklaan. They were exceptional hosts and I really learnt a lot about how oil palm is grown. Unfortunately as it was the monsoon season I didn’t get the chance to take any photos.

At the end of my trip I was invited to a plantation on the Malaysian peninsula in Jendarata run by United Plantations Berhad. This is a long standing plantation, initially growing rubber then since 1918 oil palms – in fact they are one of the pioneers of the Malaysian palm oil industry. I was again made to feel extremely welcome and also managed to get out my camera in between rain storms. Apparently this is quite a small plantation but it looked big enough to me!

What were extremely impressive were both their level of expertise and also
the continuous investments they make for their workers. Whilst there I saw
old workers’ houses being upgraded to ones with satellite TV (!) and other
modern comforts and they even have a fully functioning hospital and school.
This plantation was also the first to be accredited under the Roundtable on
Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) Principles & Criteria
. On the plantation is also a lab where they constantly refine the hybrid plants that they use to maximise yields of oil – no use of GMOs. They also make these more efficient hybrids freely available to local smallholders to help them produce more oil and so trade out of poverty.

One of the ways in which they try to reduce their environmental impact is to
use less fertilisers and pesticides. Everything produced from the
harvesting of the fresh fruit bunches (the raw palm seeds) is re-used – in
the video above the reason they heap the palm fronds in a pile is to produce
compost. Pesticide usage is also reduced – if you look at the picture above
you can see some yellow flowers in the foreground. These flowers are a
natural insect repellent and provide the first line of defence. Rodents are
also a problem and used to be poisoned using chemicals. Nowadays
plantations such as this one have found a much more environmentally friendly
way of dealing with such pests – they provide homes for owls. You can see
one of them in the picture below. By providing them homes the owls arrive
of their own volition then hunt the rodents.

This plantation is also fascinating and unique as it has the only plantation
railway system in Malaysia. By transporting by rail they can get the fresh
fruit bunches (FFB) to the mill faster which means they are fresher.
Tractors are used to transport the containers from in between the palm trees
onto the rails.

As you can see from the video above the FFB is harvested by hand using a
long pole with a saw on the end. I was allowed to give it a try and I
assure you that it is really hard work in the heat and the FFB is very
spiky! The professional harvesters managed to make it look simplicity
itself though. Once at the mill the magic begins. The FFB is sent through
a series of processes to extract the crude palm oil (CPO). Firstly it’s
sent through a Steriliser then the FFB is stripped into Empty Fruit Bunches
(EFB). The palm nuts are also extracted – more on this later – and then the
palm fruits are pressed many times to extract every drop of oil. The wasted
fibres, such as the EFB, are used as a biomass to run the boilers that
create the steam for the process so nothing is wasted.

The nut is sent on its own journey to be cleaned, cracked and squeezed.
This oil is special and has many uses such as the fondant in your favourite
cream cake. The next step is the refinery which is where the CPO and the
palm kernel oil (PKO from the nut) are refined. Amazing what you can get
out of a palm tree!

If my photos haven’t done the plantations justice then you can find the
official ones here#. Any
questions please feel free to ask them through this blog. I’ll blog again
with more information on the uses of the different products from the CPO and the PKO another day.

Posted by Julian on 16 January 2012
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