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Oil palm sector on alert of bud rot disease threat

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s oil palm industry is on alert for the bud rot disease that has killed millions of trees in South America. The disease is estimated to have wiped out some 50,000ha of oil palm estates in South America, said planters from Colombia, the world’s fifth largest oil palm producer in the world. 

Although no cure has yet to be found, Malaysian planters should not panic, said Dr Ahmad Kushairi Din, Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) deputy director-general. 

“We’re taking proactive measures from prevention to control, should there be any contamination. Our stringent quarantine controls have always been in place,” he told Business Times on the sidelines of an international seminar held here last Friday.

Malaysia is the world’s second largest palm oil producer and exports from this industry is forecast to hit RM80 billion this year, its second straight record year. The country will soon be sending a team of agronomists to South America to study the disease.

Kushairi, who is also International Society For Oil Palm Breeders president, explained that the bud rot disease is caused by a microbe called phytophthora palmivora. “Based on our initial study carried out more than 10 years ago, we find that the bud rot disease can spread very quickly because this pathogen is able to swim in the water. It thrives in a very humid and cloudy environment,” he said.

MPOB has also signed a research agreement with Cenipalma, the research institute of the Colombian Palm Oil Growers Association.

Colombia, the oil palm hub in South America, has 350,000ha planted with oil palms. It is the fifth largest oil palm country in the world after Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Nigeria.

Jorge Corredor, a Colombian oil palm smallholder attending the seminar, revealed the bud rot disease had wiped out all 3,200ha of his oil palm estates in just two years. 

“We tried sanitation, it didn’t work. Even the replanted Dolly Partons we sourced from Malaysia died. Until today, we have not found the cure,” he said.

Malaysia’s oil palms are affectionately called Dolly Partons by planters because the trees are short and produce very big fruit bunches compared to the original palms brought in from West Africa, a hundred years ago. In the last 50 years, our agronomists have been marrying the Dura and Psifera palms (DXP) to get the Dolly Parton hybrids that bear voluptuous fruit bunches. 

Corredor said the bud rot disease is not just in Colombia as it has spread to Panama, Suriname, Brazil and Ecuador. “So many of our mills have closed down and many people have lost their jobs. My country and your country is situated along the tropical belt of the globe, we share the same weather. I’m telling you, this bud rot disease is a serious threat.”

“I have nothing to gain from talking about what has happened to the oil palm industry in my country. This is something I would not wish upon planters in other countries. This is potentially a global problem,” Corredor said. He thinks that the world could face a shortage of cooking oil if the disease finds it way to Southeast Asia.

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