Relook at crop diversification by plantations for their survival

25 March 2015 05:49 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Concern had been expressed by some, a few years ago, in regard to a government decision at that time, to diversify some of the rubber lands in Ratnapura, Kegalle and Kalutara and some other wet zone districts to oil palm cultivation despite the very attractive rubber prices, then. But now with tea and rubber prices becoming unattractive and cultivation unprofitable, this would be the right time to reconsider.

The strongest argument against oil palm was that it transpires far more than rubber, drying up the soil and hence cultivation of oil palm in the wet zone would be an environmental hazard. A debate on oil palm versus rubber erupted in 2003 essentially in regard to the supposed adverse impact of the former on soil water. Unfortunately, as the objection was not based on sound scientific evidence, the objection was not considered seriously.

Many oil palm planting enterprises now think that, from new plantings, nearly double the present average yields is expected from about the 10th year after planting and the scenario would be very attractive to diversify into oil palm. The prices and profits of course fluctuate based on supply and demand but with growing affluence in many countries the demand of both commodities will continue to rise.

Therefore, on economic considerations all three crops together have strong claims, if prices become attractive, on long-term basis.
Oil palm requires comparatively less labour but much more fertilizer than rubber. On the other hand, shortage of skilled tappers is an overriding disincentive for rubber cultivation.

The Sri Lankan plantation industry therefore should go for more and more oil palm as a crop diversification policy in order to increase its profitability and minimize risks. Let us have tea, rubber and oil palm, where ever it is possible to grow them, in order to get out of the present crisis.

Crop diversification
Crop diversification is intended to give a wider choice in production and expansion of a variety of crops with value addition. It proves to be of paramount importance in meeting the challenges of economic return by minimizing the risk of crop/market failure that might result from the vagaries of climate or demand – supply balance or any other associated factors.

Implementation of diversified crop system is a productive way to maximize production and profit. Considering the fact, the plantation industry, the biggest agro-industry in Sri Lanka, is fighting for survival; it should embark on a diversification plan to retain its profitability and market share looking at options of alternative cropping.

Presently, some of the plantation companies in Sri Lanka are in the process of expanding its product portfolio by launching new products and also taking steps to grow various income generating crops such as oil palm.

Thus, considering the present world scenario of plant diversification, oil palm, an economically important plant, can be considered for cultivation in the plantation areas.  However, the nature of diversification will differ due to the existence of wide heterogeneity in agro-climatic and socio-economic environments.

Cleaner production required
Oil palm was introduced to Sri Lanka from Malaysia in the late 1960s. As of now, after approximately three and a half decades, it has spread over 10,000 acres of the southern part of the island. Watawala, Namunukula, Agalawatta and Elpitiya are the four key companies that share oil palm plantations, which are distributed mainly in the Galle District.

A few other regional plantation companies (RPCs) are also interested but they have been receiving negative signals from the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL). However, initially the country had only one palm oil mill owned by Watawala Plantations Ltd, located at Nakiyadeniya in the Galle District, processing over 19,000 tonnes of fresh fruit bunches annually. Another mill was subsequently installed in Agalawatte by the other companies jointly.

Research was undertaken by the University of Moratuwa with the objective to identify the applicability of cleaner production into the Sri Lankan palm oil industry and to present places where CP can be adopted in the Sri Lankan palm oil industry through technical, financial and environmental evaluation of CP options and identification of their priority levels in implementation. In addition, development of a proposed Industry-Specific Effluent Discharge Standard for Sri Lankan palm oil industry is considered as a key objective in this study.

Detailed assessments were conducted in areas including material handling and consumption and waste generation with their characteristics. Electrical and thermal energy utilisation was analysed in detail to evaluate the current operational efficiencies and methods to minimise the losses. Energy and material balances were done in calculating actual process requirements and estimating existing losses.

A boiler heat balance and evaluation of electrical efficiencies of each and every process machinery were conducted with industry experts to find out the losses and to identify the places where improvements can be made without drastic changes to the existing operational methods. Calorific values and moisture contents of key waste streams of the plant were analysed in order to determine energy inputs and evaluate the possibilities of operating the plant self-sufficiently, energy wise. 

Opportunities of modifying the physical state of raw material and recycling of utilities and waste materials from the process were assessed during the audit. Observations and conversations with the employees were major tools used in the audit and the employee recommendations or comments on CP improvements were considered important in identifying and prioritising the final CP options. 

Technical feasibility and environmental sustainability were the main evaluating criteria of selecting the key cleaner production options for the factory processes. The measured moisture-free base calorific values of EFB, PPF and PKS indicate that it is possible to have a cogeneration plant onsite which could fulfil the plants’ electrical and heat (steam and hot water) requirements. 

The flue gas analysis carried out in the factory boiler indicates that the excess air percentage is higher than the recommended value. Correcting this will increase the boiler efficiency as the flue gas losses decrease. In addition, complete burning of the fuel will decrease the amount of hazardous pollutants being emitted into the surrounding environment.

According to the measured values and the boiler heat balance carried out it was seen that there is a possibility of using flue gas heat to replace steam at some processes. Blow down losses of the boiler could be further reduced by treating (reducing TDS) inlet water to the boiler. 

As a result of the electric power analysis of almost all the plant electrical machinery it was seen that most of the machines (over 60 percent) are operated at less than half load conditions, which contributes to low operation efficiencies, low power factors and due to all these considerable wastage in electrical energy consumption.

It was identified that by making effortless changes to the existing handling systems could minimise the product losses and at the same time improve the [mal product quality, making the operation more profitable.

In addition, income from by-products will enhance the economic viability of implementing the selected cleaner production options. Wet extracting of crude palm oil from palm fruits generates large quantities of wastewater. 

Raw Palm Oil Mill Effluent (POME) can be considered as one of the highest industrial polluting sources having BOD, COD and TDS values as high as 26,000, 67,000 and 72,000 mg/l, respectively. As there is no industry-specific standard for palm oil industry in Sri Lanka, the factories have to comply with the General Effluent Discharge Standards specified by the Central Environmental Authority (CEA). The treated effluent quality of the range BOD520 1000 - 1,360 mg/l, COD 2,371 - 2,880 mg/l and TDS 21,800 - 22,410 mg/l achieved in the existing pond system of Nakiyadeniya pail oil mill did not comply with the CEA general standards.

Analysis of POME treatment technologies in practice and in experimental scale revealed that achieving compliance with set CEA General Standards is a difficult task. Further, the effluent discharge standards laid out in other countries, applicable to POME discharge, shows the stringent nature of the Sri Lankan general standards and difficulty in complying with the set standards. The generation of the proposed standard considered applicability of treatment technologies used worldwide in Sri Lankan conditions (Best Practical Technologies) and effluent disposal standards adopted in other countries.

Global scenario
Production of palm oil in Indonesia has, since 1964, recorded a phenomenal increase from 157,000 tonnes to 31 million tonnes in 2013. Palm oil accounts for 11 percent of Indonesia’s export earnings of US $ 5.7 billion. Maintaining its status as the world’s largest producer of palm oil (Table 1), Indonesia has projected a figure of 40 million tonnes by 2020. 

In this context, the global production figure given by Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) was 50 million tonnes for 2012, double the production of 2002. This increase is reflected also in increases of Indonesia’s production of palm oil for the same period, from 10.300 million tonnes in 2002 and 28.50 million tonnes in 2012.

Malaysian example
In order to convince the GOSL, let us look at another example. Development of the oil palm industry in Malaysia has been remarkable.
Starting off as ornamental, the crop has developed into a multibillion ringgit industry. In Africa, the crop originally existed wild in the groves and various constraints were faced in the efforts towards domestication. It is in Malaysia that much of the crop’s full potential has been exploited. This transformation from the wild to being domesticated, where it is grown in neat rows in well-managed plantations, has not been without cost. A lot effort has gone into understanding this ‘new’ crop and the means of fitting it to its new home.

The growth of the palm industry in Malaysia has been phenomenal. From a mere 400 hectares planted in 1920, the hectarage increased to 54,000 hectares in 1960. Since then many more areas have been opened up for oil palm cultivation, either from virgin jungles or from the conversion of plantations that originally supported rubber or other crops.

This increase in hectarage is a direct consequence of the government’s policy on crop diversification. By 1996, the hectarage under oil palm stood at a staggering 2.6 million hectares. By 2005 and 2010 the percentage change in the areas under oil palm was around 20 percent for each five-year period.
In 2011, the hectarage reached five million hectares and the change in area in 2011 was only three percent as compared to 2010. This rapid growth in oil palm planting has been seen in five-year period 1965 – 1970, 1970 – 1975 and even in 1975 – 1980, due to the crop diversification programme adopted by their government.

Nutrient recycling
Nutrient recycling provided by cover crops, cut fronds, empty fruit brunches and palm oil mill effluent (POME) has already been well documented (for example, one tonne of pruned fronds can return an equivalent of 7.5 kilogram nitrogen, 106 kilogram phosphorus, 9.81 kilogram potassium and 2.79 kilogram magnesium to the soil. A total of 10 tonnes pruned fronds are produced per hectare per year.) 
This practice of biomass recycling not only saves on fertilizer cost but more importantly goes a long way towards environmental conservation, by reducing dependence on fossil fuel required for the manufacture of inorganic fertilizer.

(Dr. N. Yogaratnam can be contacted at
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