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Oil palm: a crop of the future      
By Munawar Opel

Agriculture, a major economic activity employs half of the country's labour force and generates nearly fourth of the gross national product.

Oil palm: a crop of the futureSo far, the agricultural strategy has successfully met the food requirements of a rapidly growing Pakistani population and has played a pivotal role in earning foreign exchange through export of rice and cotton.

Crops, the most important agricultural sub-sector constitutes around 60 per cent of the agricultural gross domestic product (GDP), with production concentrated in three broad agro-ecological zones: irrigated lowlands, rain-fed lowlands, and mountain areas.

Crop production is well diversified, with more than half the area devoted to cereals, one fifth to cash crops, and the rest to fodder, pulses, vegetables, and fruits. Of 22 million hectares of cultivable land, 18 million are irrigated and 4 million rain-fed.

Almost 60 per cent of this land is found in Punjab and about 30 per cent in the Sindh. The irrigated plains are used mainly for the production of cotton, rice, and sugarcane, while wheat is the main crop in the rain-fed areas.

Another 9 million hectares are classified as being cultivable but undeveloped either because of the environmental damage (wind and water erosion, salinity, and water logging) or because of a lack of irrigation. Mixed crop-livestock are of considerable economic importance, accounting for almost 30 per cent of the agricultural GDP and more than 10 per cent of the country's foreign exchange earnings.

It is an irony that Pakistan has yet to take advantage of its coastal zones, comprising of 550km coastline of Balochistan and 330km shore line of the Southern Province of Sindh.

Some of its areas are best suited for oilpalm plantation with suitable temperatures between 24C to 35C. In case of less rainfall, its substitution can be humidity and availability of canal water. Eleven districts of Andhra Pradesh in India can do it, so why not we.

The import bill of edible oils is costing the national exchequer about Rs50 billion of hard earned foreign exchange. Pakistan has all the necessary ingredients to go for massive oilpalm plantation and succeed only if we get out of the edible oil trap.

There are eight major oils in the world today out of 16. These are coconut, sunflower, palm, soyabeanl, cotton, rapeseed, groundnut and palm kernel oil. The world wide average productivity of various oil crops are soyabean 351kg hectare per year, cottonseed 188; groundnut 384; sunflower seed 504; rapeseed 556; sesame seed 178; palm oil 3,200; palm kernel oil 454; and copra 356 kg/ha/year. It may be mentioned here that one hectare equals to 2.47 acres, and that each hectare under pilpalm yields 10 times more oil than most of the other oil crops.

The import of palm oil in 2001-02 was 1,189,329m tons worth Rs23,905.128 million, excluding approximately 70 per cent taxes and freight charges and totalling 99.84 per cent import. Coconut oil was 0.16 per cent, which was 1,881.240m tons worth Rs53.097 million excluding approximately 70 per cent taxes and freight charges.

The steady growth in population has been and will remain the main factor in growth of edible oil industry in Pakistan. Its current population is around 150 million, which ranks Pakistan as the 7th most populous country in the world. The population growth rate is 2.07 per cent.

However, the government target is to bring the population growth rate to 1.8 per cent per annum in order to improve the quality of life, as presently one-third of the population lives below the poverty line.

The average household size in Pakistan is 6 to 8 persons, while the rural and urban population in the country is 59 and 41 per cent, respectively, with an increase rate of urbanization at 4 per cent, approximately.

It is essential, prudent and imperative that Pakistan should go for oilpalm plantation as it spends about Rs50 billion on the import of 1.400 million tons of edible oil annually and its share of palm oil is about 1.200 million tons per annum.

The edible oil requirement is about two million tons per annum, while the local production is only 0.634 million tons per annum, which is only 30 per cent. Seventy per cent of edible oil is imported every year. It is expected that the edible oil requirement will increase by 6 to 8 per cent per annum.

The palm produces three main economic products i.e., palm oil, palm kernel oil and palm kernel cake. Palm oil extracted from the fruit mesocarp. It is mainly used for food with some industrial applications.

Palm kernel oil is extracted from the kernel or seed. It is mainly used for cosmetics, detergents and shampoo preparations. Palm kernel cake is the residue from the kernel after extraction of oil; it is a useful animal feed.

For successful oilpalm Plantation in coastal zone, land preparation is to be done as for other crops like cotton and wheat. The oilpalm variety to be sown is Tenera. The number of plants required per acre is 64 plants, the spacing between plants should be 25ft, and the distance from row to row at 25ft. The sowing method should be that pits measuring 2'x2'x2' are prepared and these should be in square.

Pits be filled then by sweet soil/top river soil/silt, and 100 gram of Nitrogen phosphorous potassium (NPK) fertilizer is mixed with the soil of one pit of about 16 to 20kg soil. It may be ensured that pits be irrigated at least 15 to days before sowing.

Thereafter, plants are put into the pit after removing the polythene bag gently so that soil should not be disturbed or removed from the roots. Two gallons of water should be supplied to each plant daily up to one year after plantation, and four gallons should be supplied to each plant on alternate day up to next two years. It would be better that if irrigation is done after 3-4 days upto maturity (8th year of plantation) i.e., from 4th year of plantation up to 8th year.

When plants are mature, irrigation may be done on weekly basis, while the NPK fertilizer at the rate of 400gm per plant should be applied after three month on regular basis.

As for farm yard manure (FYM), it should be at the rate of 4kg per plant after every four months on regular basis. It is ensured that the intervals between application of the FYM and the NPK fertilizer may be at least two months.

Infestation of pest and diseases will not be observed in early stages. However, for boron deficiency, the crop should be sprayed with 0.25 per cent solution of boric acid. Fruits will appear after 3-4 years of plantation but these will be deficient in oil contents, therefore to be removed. Firstly, male flowers will appear and then female flowers which will appear from the apex of leaves.

The male flowers will disappear after pollination and emergence of female flowers take place. The crop will mature in 7/8 years of plantation and economical production will start from 8th year. On an average, one is likely to produce about 12 to 15 fresh fruit bunches (FFB) per annum.

It is interesting that the plant will produce the FFB throughout the year except in May and June and the likely weight of one the FFB should be about 15kg on an average basis. The expected oil content on whole FFB basis is 25 per cent, oil content in Mesocarp of fruits is 40 per cent, and oil content in kernel (seed) is 10 per cent.

On an average, oil yield from one acre is 2 metric tons annually. Oil price per ton is about Rs35,000. As such, income from one acre is about Rs70,000, while the cost of production per acre, approximately is Rs10,5001. The net return per acre (from 8th year of plantation) will be Rs59,500.

However, to start with a comprehensive action plan (CAP) should be adopted as Pakistan's coastline is 880km in length i.e., 330km of Sindh from Karachi to Badin and 550km of Balochistan from Hub to Gwadar. About 500,000 acres are well-suited for cultivation of oil palm.

Out of this, 300,000 acres have been identified in Sindh in Thatta, Badin districts, Karachi, Hyderabad, Mirpurkhas and Sanghar (tehsils of Tando Adam and Shahdadpur) and 200,000 areas have been identified in Balochistan in the tehsils/districts of Hub, Somiani, Vinder, Pasni and Gwadar.

Some farms of Forest Department Sindh in coastal areas of Thatta and Badin districts, measuring 64,943 acres, can also be utilized for Oilpalm plantation plus 200,000 acres of sugarcane field in Sindh.

After good management, the country will be able to save Rs35 billion per annum after 10 years' of oilpalm plantation in coastal areas of Pakistan i.e., after the crops mature. However, during the 7-8 years' time required for maturity, income can be generated through inter cropping of banana, papaya, fodder and vegetables between two rows of plants.

The cost and income of production of oil palm and inter cropping worked out for 25 acres is Rs262,500 and Rs260,000, respectively, while income from oilpalm and inter cropping shall be Rs1,487,500 and 595,000, respectively. Rice cannot be inter cropped.

The potential areas suitable for oilpalm plantation are Math, Tando Muhammad Khan, Nindo Shah, Tando Bago, Kunri, Umer Kot, Digri, Jhudo, Jamesabad, Tando Allahyar, Tandojam, Mirpurkhas, Khipro, Hala, Talhar, Keti Bandar, Ghora Bari, Shah Bandar, Pir Putho, Ghuhar Jamali, Thatta, Ghulamullah. The total area comes to around 558,641 hectares.

The Coastal Development Authority has launched a scheme for oilpalm plantation on 2,000 acres in coastal areas of Thatta and Badin Districts, which has been reflected in the ADP 2004-05.

Its economic analysis shows that by 2011-12, the net benefit shall start rising from Rs2.9 million to Rs70.00 million each. Experience of the CA and the Pakistan Oilpalm Development Board in the coastal areas of Balochistan and Sindh has testimony to the fact that oilpalm plantation can be done.

As for socio-economic benefits, Pakistan is in a win-win situation. The likely socio-economic benefits would be self-sufficiency in edible oils or at least moving in that direction, savings of foreign exchange, encouragement of industrialization, improvement of per acre income of growers, utilization of rural manpower round-the-year, improvement of natural environment, substitution of sugarcane, each hectacre under oilpalm yields 10 times more oil than most other oil crops, and income far exceeds expenditure when both oilpalm is planted, and intercropping is done simultaneously.

In 30 to 40 years, Pakistan can become an exporter to the Gulf and the Middle Eastern countries, if properly managed. This sector shall be the most effective, efficient income generating and poverty reduction tool. Besides, Oil palm is known to be consumer and environment friendly.

There are 34 reasons to substantiate. However, an oil palm forest, with its perennial green cover and closed canopy, displays the main features of a tropical rainforest. It is also a more efficient carbon sink than a tropical rainforest and helps absorb greenhouse gases.

The oil palm forest assimilates 44 tons of dry matter/ha/year compared to 25.7 tons by a rainforest. Dry matter production remains high throughout the 25-year economic lifecycle of the oilpalm forest, which can then be replanted.

During planting, several measures are taken to prevent soil degradation and to conserve fertility. The empty fruit bunches (EFBs), rich in organic and potash are recycled back to the soil as mulch. In some mills, the EFBs are burnt together with fibre and shell to generate extra energy.

Fibre from the EFBs can be used for pulp and paper production, and to make panel products. When composted, the EFBs make good organic fertilizers and soil conditioners. The EFBs are used to produce bunch ash, a high value potash fertilizer.

Palm oil mill effluent (POME), which is rich in nutrients, is recycled back to land. POME, after biological treatment, is increasingly applied to oil palm land for fertilizer and moisture benefits.

Solids are processed into organic fertilizer or animal feed. Compared to other major annual oilseed crops, the cultivation and processing of oilpalm requires less input of fertilizers, pesticides and fuel energy to produce one ton of oil. This means that less emissions and pollutants are generated, thereby, preserving soil, water and air quality.

Leguminous (pulses like mattar, channa, masoor ki dall, grams, gohaar phali) cover crops reduce reliance on herbicides during the early years. Bio-control is also promoted through rearing of sheep, cattle and goats on major plantations. During replanting, palm trunks can be used as lumber to manufacture planks.

Fiber extracted from trunks and fronds is useful to wood-based industries as a raw material. Palm kernel cake, a by-product of kernel oil extraction, is an established, nutritious and safe animal feed, which is exported world wide. Pulverized fronds and trunks tissues can also be used as roughage in some animal feed.

Biogas production can be harnessed for heat and electricity generation. Palm-based diesel is a clean and 'green' fuel that promises to be a source of renewable energy. A new technique eliminates the traditional practice of burning felled palms during replanting. 

Courtesy: The DAWN

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