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Palm Oil: Production, Processing, Characterization, and Uses

Palm Oil: Production, Processing, Characterization, and Uses

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Palm Oil: Production, Processing, Characterization, and Uses

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Sep 1, 2015


Palm Oil: Production, Processing, Characterization, and Uses serves as a rich source of information on the production, processing, characterization and utilization of palm oil and its components. It also includes several topics related to oil palm genomics, tissue culture and genetic engineering of oil palm. Physical, chemical and polymorphic properties of palm oil and its components as well as the measurement and maintenance of palm oil quality are included and may be of interest to researchers and food manufacturers. General uses of palm oil/kernel oil and their fractions in food, nutritional and oleochemical products are discussed as well as the potential use of palm oil as an alternative to trans fats. Some attention is also given to palm biomass, bioenergy, biofuels, waste management, and sustainability.
  • Presents several chapters related to oil palm genetics, including oil palm genomics, tissue culture and genetic engineering.
  • Includes contributions from more than 80 well-known scientists and researchers in the field.
  • In addition to chapters on food uses of palm oil, the book contains nonfood applications such as use as a feedstock for wood-based products or for bioenergy.
  • Covers key aspects important to the sustainable development of palm oil.
Sep 1, 2015

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Palm Oil - Elsevier Science



A Brief History of the Oil Palm

Ian E. Henson,     7 Richmond Dale, Clifton, Bristol BS8 2UB, UK


The African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis Jacq.) has been utilized by mankind as a source of oil and other products for thousands of years. In the last 50 years or so there has been a phenomenal expansion in its cultivation throughout the tropics, such that palm oil is now a major commodity of world trade, and the oil palm is a leading source of vegetable oil. This chapter traces the history of the African oil palm and its relatives in terms of its origins, evolution, distribution, and utilization; reviews the growth of the palm oil industry; and examines the progress made in enhancing production through selective breeding, improved cultivation practices and exploitation of optimum environments that together have resulted in progressive and substantial yield increases in this most productive of all oil-bearing crops.

History is often largely a matter of conjecture to the extent that it led Henry Ford (1916) to describe it as more or less bunk. Certainly there is a need for careful interpretation of past records and available evidence, but this often generates opposing views and ideas. In the case of the African oil palm, Elaeis guineensis, and its relatives, while there is much documented evidence concerning its development as a major crop, there are nevertheless a number of uncertainties regarding its origins and distribution.

Perhaps the most comprehensive account of oil palm history is found in the classic work, The Oil Palm. It is now in its 4th edition, the first three of which are by Hartley and appeared in 1967, 1977, and 1988; and the fourth, by Corley & Tinker, was published in 2003. In these volumes one finds detailed reviews of the origins of the African and American oil palms, their spread, and the development of the oil palm industry in various parts of the tropics. No attempt will be made here to emulate these exhaustive and seminal treatments of the subject, which the reader needing further information is advised to consult. Rather, an attempt is made to summarize the more prominent events and developments in the history of the oil palm and highlight points of uncertainty that remain such as those concerning origins, taxonomic relationships, and geographical dispersal.

Taxonomy, Origins and Distribution of Oil Palms

Taxonomy and Classification

Three species of palm are currently accepted as belonging to the genus Elaeis, which is one of a number of genera within the sub-family Arecoideae of the family Arecaceae (formerly known as Palmaceae) (Box 1.1). The major oil palm of commerce, the African oil palm (E. guineensis Jacq.) (Fig. 1.1), was formally named as such by Jacquin in 1763 based on specimens collected in Martinique. The naming and classification of the species has been retained since that time, despite numerous synonyms having been proposed (Schultes, 1990). Its origin on the Guinea coast of West Africa had been attested to as early as the late 16th century (Lobelius, 1570, 1576, 1581).

Box 1.1

   Scientific classification.

Kingdom: Plantae

Family: Arecaceae

Subfamily: Arecoideae

Tribe: Cocoseae

Subtribe: Elaeidinae

Genus: Elaeis

Source: GRIN (2011).

Fig. 1.1 The African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis, Jacq.). Source: Brandt et al. (1887).

The classification of the remaining species of Elaeis has proved more contentious. The American oil palm, now known as E. oleifera (HBK), Cortes has been considered variously as being either (1) a form of E. guineensis, (2) a separate species within the genus Elaeis, or (3) a member of the genus Corozo [Described by Bailey (1940) as being transferred from the earlier Alfonsia oleifera of Humbolt, Bonpland, and Kunth (HBK) (Hartley, 1977)]. Its formal description by Cortes as E. oleifera dates from 1897.

E. oleifera was initially known as E. melanococca and considered to be a form of E. guineensis (Corley, 1976). However, there are several distinct differences in morphology between the African and American oil palm that argue against this, notably the rate of trunk growth and the structure of the fronds and inflorescences.

Although E. oleifera was initially placed in the genus Corozo, due to its close affinities to E. guineensis as shown by its readiness to hybridize with this species and produce fertile offspring (Hardon & Tan, 1969), its placement in a separate genus was considered unwarranted. Hardon (1969) observed that the American oil palm appears to be the more primitive of the two, as indicated by the dominance in E. guineensis × oleifera hybrids of several characters that originate from the latter species.

The third species, E. odora Traill, was previously known as Barcella odora, but its minor morphological differences from those of the other Elaeis species (Corley, 1976), together with affinities revealed by molecular marker analysis (Corley & Tinker, 2003, citing work of Barcelos et al., 1999), are not thought sufficient to warrant it being placed in a separate genus.

Of the three species, the African oil palm is the only one cultivated on a wide scale. E. oleifera finds use for producing E. guineensis × oleifera hybrids, while E. odora, which grows wild in South America, has not yet been domesticated. Another proposed member of the genus was E. madagascariensis Becc, now generally thought to be a form of E. guineensis (Hartley, 1977). This chapter deals mainly with E. guineensis but reference is made to E. oleifera where appropriate.

Intra-Specific Variation in E. guineensis

Within E. guineensis, several genetically distinct forms are recognized based on the structure and coloration of the fruits. The major structural character is the thickness of the shell or endocarp that surrounds the seed or kernel (Fig. 1.2). Three main forms are generally recognized [i.e., dura (thick-shelled), tenera (medium or thin-shelled), and pisifera, (shell-less)]. There is also a fourth type, termed macrocarya (Cobley, 1963), with a very thick stony endocarp that is taken to represent an extreme form of the dura but which otherwise has no genetic significance (Hartley, 1977). Shell thickness is controlled by a single gene, as shown by segregation of the progeny of tenera selfs to give dura, tenera, and pisifera offspring in the ratio 1:2:1. It is the crosses between dura and pisifera that result in tenera hybrids that are the basis of modern plantations (Box 1.2).

Box 1.2

   Did you know?

• The original description of the African oil palm by Jacquin in 1763 was based on material collected in Martinique to which he attributed a West African origin.

• It was extremely fortunate and purely by chance that the four dura palms imported into Indonesia in 1848 that formed the basis of the industry in Southeast Asia proved to be so uniform and potentially productive.

Fig. 1.2 A ripe fruit bunch on a young tenera oil palm. Photograph by author.

Other distinctions occur in the external coloration of the fruits. There are three main forms: nigrescens, being the most common with violet to black unripe fruits turning at maturity to reddish orange with a brown cap (rubro-nigrescens) or paler orange with a black cap (rutilo-nigrescens); virescens, with unripe green fruits and light reddish orange ripe fruits with a small greenish tip; and albescens, with deep green unripe fruits becoming pale yellow or ivory with apical green or black cap as they ripen. The color of the albescens is due to the virtual absence of carotene in the mesocarp. Both this and the virescens are relatively rare. The virescens is of interest as it is very easy for harvesters to identify ripe bunches from a distance without the need to check for the presence of loose fruit. As might be expected, the three forms differ in their chemical composition, such as carotene and anthocyanin contents. As with shell thickness, inheritance of fruit coloration is under mono-genetic control. Mantled fruits with supplementary carpels surrounding the main fruit are another variation. They occur naturally but were also found in high frequencies in early batches of tissue-cultured palms, resulting in low fertility and inferior oil yield and fruit quality. This contrasts with their previous inclusion in breeding programs aimed at increasing mesocarp content (Hartley, 1977).

In addition to fruit types, forms of E. guineensis with distinct vegetative characters are recognized, such as the idolatrica palm with fused leaflets (Hartley, 1977) and the dumpy (short-stemmed) palm with slow vertical growth.

Geographical Origins and Distribution

There has been divergence of opinion as to whether the African oil palm originated in Africa or in the Americas (Corley, 1976; Corley & Tinker, 2003; Hartley, 1977). While evidence supports both possibilities, the majority opinion favors West Africa as the centre from which E. guineensis has been dispersed, largely as a result of human activity. The main evidence supporting this, detailed by Rees (1965), Hartley (1967, 1977, 1988), Corley (1976), Gerritsma & Wessel (1997), Corley & Tinker (2003), and others, includes the following:

• The presence of fossil pollen similar or identical to that of E. guineensis in Miocene strata in Nigeria dating back 15 million years BP.

• The finding of oil that may have been palm oil in an Egyptian tomb dating back to 5000 BP.

• The presence of oil palm pollen in early deposits in the Congo dating from 24000 BP and in the Cameroons from 2730 BP.

• The discovery of fossil seeds and shells of oil palm in Uganda, the latter dating from 5000 BP.

• Reports by early European explorers and traders of the existence of palm oil and oil palms along the coast of West Africa, beginning with journeys by the Portuguese in 1435 and thereafter, that preceded the discovery of mainland South America by Colombus in 1498. Palm groves were observed in West Africa by Portuguese mariners in 1506 at about which time trade in palm oil commenced by the Portuguese. This and earlier reports make it highly unlikely for the palm to have been introduced into West Africa from South America, although, as mentioned by Hartley (1988), introduction in pre-Colombian times cannot be entirely ruled out.

• Vernacular terms for the African oil palm in South America are of African derivation rather than relating to indigenous American languages.

• Rees (1965) cites negative evidence opposing an American origin. Thus, there is no mention of palm oil or palm wine in early reports of the palms present in Brazil, nor is oil palm recorded as being among plants of American origin, such as the pineapple, that were introduced into West Africa.

Evidence in support of an American origin includes the following:

• There are considerably more palm species in America than are found in Africa.

• The majority of other species in the sub-family Cocoideae (now Arecoideae) are of American ancestry.

• The presence of wild groves of E. guineensis in Brazil is consistent with an American origin.

• Palm oil in Africa is largely eaten with cassava, which was introduced from Brazil.

• The dominance in the hybrids of characters inherited from the American oil palm E. oleifera over those of E. guineensis suggests the former to be the more primitive species, which favors the Americas as being the original home of the genus.

From the above, it seems the arguments for an American origin, while not entirely invalid, are less strong than those supporting the African case. Rees (1965), from a detailed study of historical records, opined that there was conclusive evidence for the presence in West Africa of E. guineensis at the time of the early Portuguese voyages and a clear description of palm oil there before the discovery of the new world.

A third possibility is that both species evolved in a common environment prior to the separation of South America and Africa by continental drift some 98 million years ago. But if this were the case, then one might expect to find native E. oleifera populations in tropical Africa.

The present day distribution of the African oil palm is now very wide, largely as a result of human dispersal. Within the African continent it occurs from 16°N in Senegal to 15°S in Angola (Fig. 1.3). It is also found off the East coast of the continent on the islands of Pemba, Zanzibar, and Madagascar and as far south as 21° on the West coast of the latter island (Hartley, 1977). However, the main zone in which the palm is concentrated lies between 3°N and 7°S, a range demarcated by the 1600 mm isohyet (Gerritsma & Wessel, 1997). Indeed, rainfall appears to be the main climatic factor affecting distribution (Blach-Overgaard et al., 2010).

Fig. 1.3 Major locations of Elaeis guineensis in Africa. The main areas where the palm is ubiquitous are hatched, with the densest populations occurring in the double hatched areas. Black dots represent isolated populations. Reproduced with permission from Hartley (1977).

E. oleifera is considered endemic to equatorial America where it is located in a broad band stretching from 12°N in Nicaragua to 10°S in Brazil (Meunier & Hardon, 1976), mainly to the east of the Andean range. It is found in the form of wild stands, although these have not been exploited to the same extent as the African groves of E. guineensis. There is some variation in fruit and vegetative characters depending on location, but this is generally less than found in E. guineensis. An exception is a distinctly compact form of E. oleifera found in Surinam (Meunier & Hardon, 1976; Rao et al., 1989).


Since the work of Zeven (1967), most workers have regarded forest fringes, river banks, and swampy areas at low altitudes to be the natural habitat of the African oil palm. Both E. guineensis and E. oleifera are thought to compete poorly with rain forest trees due to the dense shade in the understory. However, there is evidence (Henson, 1991) that oil palms have an ability to adapt to low irradiation at early stages of growth when conditions of high radiation accompanied by low humidity tend to inhibit photosynthesis.

Although oil palms, particularly at the juvenile stage, cannot withstand permanent flooding, they thrive well in areas with fluctuating water tables with lateral flow, and such areas are often found to be amongst the highest yielding.

While the densest, semi-natural stands of oil palm or palm groves are generally found at 500 m above sea level or less in major river deltas such as the Niger and Congo, oil palms are known to survive at altitudes as high as 1700 m (Gerritsma & Wessel, 1997).

Development of the Oil Palm Industry

Palm Groves

The oil palm is still considered to be largely a wild crop. This is because in spite of its long period of exploitation by man, the time during which scientifically based selection and breeding has been practiced is relatively short in terms of generation number. Unlike annual crops, breeding progress in perennials is inevitably slow, needing, in the case of oil palm, at least 9 years per generation to properly evaluate breeding material and to undertake progeny testing to determine the merits of dura and pisifera parents used to produce the tenera offspring grown by the planter.

Prior to the adoption of planned breeding programs, any improvement in the palm was largely ad hoc and associated with the exploitation of semi-wild groves. The establishment of groves is thought to have been facilitated by an increasing scarcity of land as the human population increased, which prompted more frequent clearance of forest as part of the prevailing system of shifting agriculture. This led to conditions being created that aided survival of the relatively shade-intolerant and, compared with forest trees, slower growing palms. From a study of Nigerian groves, Zeven (1967) suggested that the intensification of land use led to a process of gradual succession in development of the groves involving several transitional phases. Details are given by Hartley (1977) and Gerritsma & Wessel (1997).

The bunch yields of the palm groves have always been very low (Corley & Tinker, 2003), being mainly a function of palm density (Fig. 1.4). Oil yields are very poor by comparison with those of modern plantations (Table 1-A), partly because the majority of grove palms are thick-shelled duras (Hartley, 1977) with a low oil-to-bunch ratio and, in addition, receive little fertilizer, are often too tall to harvest easily and at the correct stage of ripeness, and are often used as sources of sap for palm wine production, a practice which reduces the production of bunches.

Table 1-A

Fresh Fruit Bunch (FFB) and Palm Oil Yield of Different Production Systems in Nigeria.

Note. Modified from Table 1.2 of Corley & Tinker (2003) citing Omoti (pers. comm., 2000).

Fig. 1.4 Annual yield of fruit bunches in four types of oil palm grove in Nigeria (1949–1951). Grove types, in ascending order of yield, were farmland, groves near compounds, degraded groves, and dense groves. Data are from Corley & Tinker (2003), after Hartley (1988).

Nevertheless the palm groves, especially in West Africa, have long played an important role in the economy of the region, first supplying purely local needs and then facilitating development of a valuable export trade (particularly in palm kernels) with European merchants from the 16th century onwards. By the 19th century this trade provided a more profitable and convenient alternative to the, by then illicit, slave trade. Further details concerning the development of this early trade and the factors leading to its expansion are given by Hartley (1977), Gerritsma & Wessel (1997), and Corley & Tinker (2003).

Even today, the groves still dominate production in Nigeria (Table 1-A). Attempts to improve production of grove palms have not proved very successful. Part of the reason may be local consumers’ preference of oil from dura rather than tenera palms for use in cooking, the former being regarded as having more flavor and being less prone to solidify (Poku, 2002) (Box 1.3).

Box 1.3

   Did you know?

• Palm oil from West African grove palms is favored by local domestic consumers because of its enhanced flavor associated with a high FFA content, while in contrast, large-scale producers aim to minimize FFA so as to prolong the stability of the oil and meet standards for export.

• In palm groves dura palms are favored over teneras for domestic use as cooking oil due to their more fluid properties.

Source: Poku (2002).


Attempts from the early 1800s to establish commercial-scale plantations in West Africa and to put palm oil production there on a firm commercial basis met with numerous obstacles that impeded development. There were impediments in terms of political instability and internal conflicts that hampered economic progress in general, as well as difficulties in obtaining land and providing infrastructure for transport and processing. This might explain why the main focus of development of oil palm as an industrial crop eventually shifted to Southeast Asia where the first plantations were established in Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia (then Malaya) in the early part of the 20th century. This development was due to the exploitation of the deli dura palms that originated from four specimens planted in 1848 in the Botanic Gardens at Bogor in Java. The precise origin of the Bogor palms is not known for certain, but they are thought to have been taken from West Africa to the Botanic Gardens in Amsterdam before finding their way to Bogor. Two of them came directly to Java from Amsterdam while the other two arrived via the islands of Mauritius or Reunion in the Indian Ocean, probably via Amsterdam since all four palms proved very similar in terms of their growth and fruit characteristics. Seeds collected from the Bogor palms were planted as ornamental avenues on tobacco estates near Deli and elsewhere in Sumatra, and were found to be both uniform and productive, eventually providing material for the first commercial plantings in estates in Sumatra and Malaya, undertaken around 1911. Thus, the foundations were laid for what has now become an industry of major commercial importance dominated by Southeast Asian producers (Fig. 1.5).

Fig. 1.5 Growth in palm oil production in the three regions of cultivation over 48 years. Sources: MPOB (2008), FEDEPALMA (2009).


Oil palm does not easily lend itself to being a smallholder crop due to the need for long-term investment in land and planting material and access to mills to process the fruits. Unlike most smallholder crops, it is less suited for meeting immediate subsistence needs of the cultivator, being more in the nature of a cash crop. Nevertheless, smallholdings of various kinds are responsible for a significant fraction of palm oil produced in Nigeria, Malaysia, Indonesia, and elsewhere (Tables 1-A and 1-B). A major factor in this has been the operation and provision of finance and infrastructure by government agencies and by the establishment of nuclear estates whereby plantation companies provide processing and other facilities to support neighboring smallholders.

Table 1-B

Distribution of Oil Palm Area Between Production Systems in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea.

Sources: IPOB (2007); King et al. (2004); MPOB (2008).

Uses of the Oil Palm

Through its long history, the oil palm has found many uses, and these continue to grow in line with technological developments. In Africa, the products of the oil palm initially served mainly to meet local needs and included the use of palm oil for cooking, as a vitamin source and for medicinal use, the tapping of palms to produce palm wine, the use of the fronds for thatching and fencing, and the harvesting of the edible palm heart or cabbage (Hartley, 1988). Because the palm oil produced by traditional methods was regarded as being of poor quality largely because of its high FFA content, the oil exported was initially used mainly for industrial purposes such as in the manufacture of soap and candles and as an antioxidant in tin plating (Harley, 1988). Its first use as an edible oil in Europe occurred in the late 1800s when it was used for margarine manufacture. Further use for edible purposes in Europe awaited improvements in oil quality that occurred with the introduction of mechanized mills and the regulation of standards, such as those introduced in 1949 by the Nigerian Oil Palm Produce Marketing Board (Berger, 2010). Later, the even higher quality of palm oil achieved by mills in Southeast Asia served to stimulate the trade from that region, thus contributing to its eventual dominance as a world source.

While the uses of palm oil have expanded considerably in recent years (e.g., MPOC & MPOB, 2007), some 77% of it is still used for food (USDA, 2008, cited by Sheil et al., 2009). Included in the expanding range of non-food uses is the production of bio-diesel and various oleochemicals. The combined demand for these products has encouraged the continued expansion of oil palm plantations.

Prior to the installation after WW2 of kernel crushing plants in West Africa, kernels were exported and the oil was extracted in the importing country (mainly the UK). With the installation of crushing plants, exports of kernel oil began and increased considerably, both from West Africa and Southeast Asia. Due to its different fatty acid composition, palm kernel oil has separate applications from palm oil and finds most uses in non-edible products such as detergents and cosmetics. In addition, the kernel cake or residue left after oil extraction finds use as animal feed. The non-food uses of palm oil and palm kernel oil have proliferated in recent years, as testified by other chapters in this volume.

Historical Trends in Yield Improvement

The yield of oil palm has increased remarkably from the low levels of production obtained with semi-domesticated palm groves in West Africa to that achieved today in the best managed plantations on the most favorable sites in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. Part of the increase is due to breeding and selection, part to the better environments in which the crop is now grown, and part to improvements in cultivation and management practices. The yield improvements are summarized in Table 1-C, the data in which is a mixture of results ranging from whole country averages to maximum yields obtained in experimental plots. Yield is normally strongly dependent on palm age and is thus affected by the number and actual years over which it is recorded, so the data presented below can only be a rough indication of progress. Even so, the improvement is remarkable.

Table 1-C

Improvements in Palm Oil Yield Over Time.


aCalculated from mean FFB yield assuming a 9% extraction rate (Ejemba, 1989).

bIncludes Sabah.

cQuoted by Ng et al. (2003). Mean of single clone from 4 to 9 years after planting.

dThe average yield over the economic life of a planting after canopy closure (Breure, pers. comm.). Modified from Henson (1992, 2010).

Table 1-C includes estimates of yield potential and potential yield, which serve as benchmarks against which present yields and possible increases can be evaluated.

Yield potential (Evans & Fischer, 1999) is that realized by a cultivar growing in an environment to which it is adapted when water and nutrients are non-limiting and pests and diseases are absent. Breure (2003) calculated yield potential assuming levels of solar radiation to be adequate, as is generally the case in the more productive areas of Southeast Asia. Corley (2006) has termed this the genetic yield potential in contrast to site yield potential which allows for the effects of site-specific environmental constraints.

Potential yield (Corley, 2006; Evans & Fischer, 1999) is defined as that of a hypothetical genotype combining physiologically plausible (and presumably optimal) physiological attributes under optimal agronomic management. It must be admitted that these distinctions are rather subtle and easily confused. None of the definitions take account of whether yields represent a peak or an average over the life of the crop. Breure (2003) contested the estimated potential yield of Corley (1998) as being too high, although it pales into insignificance when compared to the much higher theoretical predictions of Murphy (2007).

Estimates of potential oil yield have progressively increased from 12 t ha−1 yr−1 to 18.5 t ha−1 yr−1 following renewed analysis (Corley et al., 1976; Corley, 1983a, 1983b, 1985, 1986, 1998, 2006). On the other hand, improvements in planting materials and other factors (Table 1-C) have reduced the gap between actual and theoretical yields. The yield potential estimated by Breure (2003) has actually been achieved, at least under well-managed experimental conditions involving small populations of palms over limited time periods.

Variations in yield, such as those shown in Table 1-C, are a result of a combination of factors—genetic, environmental, and managerial. The main historical events that have led most to yield improvement compared with the grove palms of West Africa are considered to be the following:

• Introduction of the four dura seedlings of African origin to Bogor Botanic Gardens in Java (1848).

• Initial plantings of the Deli dura palms on a commercial scale in Sumatra and Malaya (1910–1911).

• The use of assisted pollination in Malaya, giving large yield increases (1922).

• The general improvement of the Deli dura for commercial planting achieved due to planned breeding and selection.

• Discovery of the monogenetic control of shell thickness leading to the widespread cultivation of tenera palms with a dramatic increase in the oil extraction rate (see below).

• The continued improvement of tenera material through conventional breeding and selection of dura female parents accompanied by testing of pisifera palms, firstly selecting for conventional traits (yield, mesocarp/fruit) and later for oil/mesocarp.

• The use of vegetative growth characters as selection criteria, facilitated by the development of growth measurements (Corley et al., 1971; Hardon et al., 1969).

• The introduction of the pollinating weevil into Southeast Asia from West Africa in 1981.

Arguably the most dramatic advance followed the discovery by Beirnaert & Vanderweyen (1941) of monogenetic control of shell thickness in the oil palm and the subsequent replacement of dura by tenera hybrids. A substantially higher oil yield is possible due to the thin-shelled character of the tenera, when compared with the thick-shelled dura (Table 1-D).

Table 1-D

Comparison of Dura and Tenera Bunch Components and Yield.

aNotes. a The data are means of seven experiments and 65 crosses. A planting density of 148 palms ha−1 is assumed.

bb The data are for full sibs from a breeding trial.

Breeding work in the CÔte d’Ivoire over more than 40 years during which tenera replaced dura (Fig. 1.6) shows that improvements in both bunch composition and FFB yield contributed to increased oil yield. An 82% increase in palm oil yield resulted from a 20% increase in O/B (oil/bunch) and a 52% increase in FFB.

Fig. 1.6 Changes over time in FFB and palm oil (PO) yield and O/B of oil palm planting material produced in Côte d’Ivoire. From Henson (1998), based on data of Meunier (1989).

The inclusion of vegetative traits as selection criteria has been increasingly practiced in recent years. Direct comparisons of different generations of breeding material (Table 1-E) show that yield improvement has involved increases in bunch production with little change in vegetative growth, leading to an increase in the bunch index. This is comparable to the changes underlying yield increases in annual crops such as cereals (Rajanaidu & Zakri, 1988). Selection for vegetative characters such as reduced height and a compact canopy, allowing higher planting density without sacrificing yield per palm, shows much promise as a means to higher yield (Breure, 1985; Breure, 2010; Breure & Corley, 1983).

Table 1-E

A Comparison of the Productivity of Different Generations of Deli Dura Palms Grown in Malaysiaa.

Note. Results are reproduced or calculated from Lee et al. (1990). Those for unselected palms are means of two groups, Bogor and Tanjong Morawa palms, for which the year of origin is only approximate. F1 are from Elmina Estate and F4 from OPRS, Banting. VDMP is vegetative dry matter production calculated from petiole cross-section measurements taken in the 18th year and then adjusted, based on data from Breure (1988), van Kraalingen (1985), and Gerritsma et al. (1992), to match the age of palms when bunch yields were measured. BDMP and TDMP are bunch and total dry matter production, respectively. Palm oil (PO) yield was calculated from bunch (FFB) yields and oil/bunch ratios. BI is bunch index (BDMP/TDMP) and e* is the efficiency of conversion of radiation to dry matter (adjusted for oil content) calculated assuming an annual photosynthetically-active solar radiation (PAR) of 3.0 GJ m−2 and an extinction coefficient for PAR of 0.47. The Table is adapted from Henson (1998), and data are partly based on Lee et al. (1990). Similar analyses are presented by Corley & Lee (1992), Corley (2001), and Gerritsma & Wessel (1997).

Yield improvement due to environment is most clearly demonstrated by comparing yields of the same materials grown in areas with differing rainfall patterns. The presence of regular dry periods in many areas of West Africa is associated with much lower yields than are obtained in Southeast Asia, even though the annual rainfall and solar radiation may not differ much. Thus, mean oil yield of the test cross L2T × D10D averaged 6.2 to 7.8 t ha−1 yr−1 in two trials in Indonesia but only 3 to 3.5 t ha−1 yr−1 when grown in the Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon (Cochard et al., 1993). A further example is provided by Nouy et al. (1999), cited by Corley & Tinker (2003), in which the same cross was grown in Benin, the Côte d’Ivoire, and Indonesia. The importance of a regular water supply is confirmed by many experiments involving irrigation in dry areas (Corley, 1996; Palat et al., 2008).

A further factor in increasing yield in Southeast Asia has been the improvement in fruit set that followed the introduction to the region from West Africa in the early 1980s of the pollinating weevil, Elaeidobius kamerunicus. This increased average bunch weights, oil content, and oil yield (Corley & Tinker, 2003).

Other factors leading to increased yields over time, while not always easily quantified, include improved nutritional management aided by regular foliar and soil nutrient analyses, increased use of mill by-products as sources of nutrients and organic matter, and improvements in harvesting and milling technology. Using data provided by Davidson (1993), the contribution to yield improvement by breeding, agronomy, pollination, and fruit processing can be assessed for a single estate (Table 1-F).

Table 1-F

Factors Leading to Palm Oil Yield Increases on a Malaysian Estate from 1951 to 1981.a

aModified from Henson (1998) using data of Davidson (1993).

Similar examples of progressive yield improvement, attributed either to improvements in management or in breeding, are presented by others (e.g., Goh et al., 1994a, 1994b; Jalani, 1998).

Palm Fruit Processing

The successful establishment and expansion of oil palm cultivation has been much dependent on the availability of suitable facilities for extracting oil and kernels from harvested fruit bunches. This was one of the factors that initially impeded development of the industry on a plantation scale in West Africa (Hartley, 1977). While traditional extraction methods co-evolved with the use of palm groves in West Africa (Fig. 1.7) and are still practiced today, they are very labor intensive and result in poor recovery and poor quality of the products (Hartley, 1988). The methods entail expressing the mesocarp oil either by pounding (soft oil production) or treading (hard oil) bunches that have been split, sometimes boiled, and left to soften, often for several days. The expelled oil is separated from the resultant pulp or mash by skimming, usually repeated to increase recovery, and the nuts are then picked out and laid to dry before being individually hand cracked and sorted to obtain the kernels. These methods are recognized (Corley & Tinker, 2003) as being notoriously inefficient and to contribute to the high FFA content and low oil yield of grove palms.

Fig. 1.7 Artist’s impression of the traditional soft palm oil extraction process used for generations in the palm groves of West Africa. Picture courtesy of N R Menon.

However, while the traditional small-scale extraction methods used for bunches from grove palms produce an oil with a high FFA content that is unacceptable in oil for export, this is considered to add bite to the oil and enhance its flavor and is much preferred by domestic consumers (Poku, 2002).

Hand-operated presses (initially modified wine presses) were introduced around 1917, which improved recovery (Hartley, 1988). These were later augmented by auxiliary equipment to deal with processes such as sterilization, stripping, digestion, and clarification. The extraction of the kernels, at one time the main product of the West African groves entering international trade, was also improved with the advent of mechanical nutcrackers.

Although the first power-operated mills were constructed in Africa prior to 1914 and in Sumatra in 1919, it was not until the 1930s that the first industrial scale mechanical milling units appeared, while mills similar to those common today were only developed from the late 1960s onwards.

While mills are now an integral part of most large-scale plantations, small estates and smallholders remain reliant on sending fruits either to independent millers or to a plantation’s mills. The latter arrangement has to some extent been formalized and encouraged by schemes whereby a nucleus estate serves the needs of adjacent, otherwise independent smallholders, both with regard to fruit processing and help with supply of fertilizers and other inputs and by providing management advice.

Progressive improvements in milling technology, while generally minor (Corley & Tinker, 2003), have nevertheless been partly responsible for increases in oil production (e.g., Table 1-F). The size of palm oil mills has tended to increase in proportion to the size of plantations and there are now mills handling up to 90 tonnes of FFB per hour with the consequent benefits of economies of scale.

With the increase in number and size of mills has come the problem of disposing of the by-products in ways that both minimize environmental pollution and make productive use of them. Materials such as fiber and shell are used as fuel to meet the energy needs of the mill while empty fruit bunches and palm oil mill effluent can be returned to the field as sources of nutrients and organic matter. A current challenge is to reduce the emission of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from effluent retention ponds, and projects to do this are underway (e.g., Tantitham et al., 2009).

Recent Developments

Oil palm remains one of the most thoroughly studied of all tropical plantation crops and most producing countries and the larger plantation groups carry out some research and development aimed at improving the level and efficiency of production, as well as the quality and range of oil palm products. At the same time, there has been increasing recognition of the need to minimize any adverse effects that oil palm may have on the natural environment and on the safety, welfare, and lifestyle of people employed or otherwise affected by the industry.


In a look at the future challenges faced by the oil palm industry, Corley and colleagues in their 1976 review pointed to the increasing costs of labor that could be countered either by increased mechanization, increased yields, or increased product prices. Increased mechanization would not be achieved without costs, such as the need for greater capital investment, increased fuel use, and manpower training. Machinery might cause soil compaction that could result in reduced yields. While in-field fruit handling and fertilizer application have been successfully mechanized, harvesting is still a manual process and efficient mechanical harvesters have yet to be developed. Increased mechanization means greater use of fossil fuels and thus greater greenhouse gas emission, so adding to current environmental concerns.

The yield improvements envisaged by Corley et al. (1976) have to some extent taken place, although for various reasons average country yields have tended to stagnate. Corley et al. (1976) were hopeful that clonal palms, just then being investigated, would provide a means to substantially improve yields. This initial optimism was subsequently dampened following the occurrence of floral abnormalities amongst clones, said to have delayed their successful adoption by about 10 years (Corley & Law, 1997). Now, however, quite large areas of clones have been planted (Basri & Arif, 2009), and their high yielding potential is beginning to be realized (Ng et al., 2003).

Product prices, while largely at the mercy of the market place and outside the control of the grower, might nevertheless be influenced by improvements in oil quality and expanding the applications of palm products. Examples of the latter are the recent use of palm oil for oleo-chemical and bio-diesel production, and there are other possibilities such as the commercial recovery of minor but high value constituents such as carotenes and vitamin E (Yusof & Lim, 1977).

A development not envisaged in 1976 has been the use of precision agricultural techniques facilitated by the increasingly accessible use of geographical information and remote sensing technology, which, together with computerized ground sensors, have the potential to increase efficiency of resource use in plantations, particularly with regard to fertilizer application.


The rapid expansion that has occurred in oil palm cultivation in the space of just a few decades has not unexpectedly been accompanied by several adverse impacts in terms of environmental and social disturbance. Key environmental effects include the loss of tropical rainforests due to land clearance and conversion to plantations (sometimes aided by burning leading to formation of haze), the destruction of wetland ecosystems following drainage, the pollution of waterways by eroded soil, the improper disposal of mill wastes, and the contamination of rivers due to leaching of nutrients and pesticides when applied improperly. Such expansion has reduced wildlife habitats, biological diversity and organic carbon stores, and contributed to the emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases that underpin climate change. In addition, social problems have arisen due to disputes over land ownership between plantation companies and native peoples. While various laws have been enacted in an effort to overcome such problems, lack of resources and political will have frequently led to their poor enforcement. As a result, palm oil and palm products have acquired an increasingly negative image. It is to be hoped that the situation will improve following the operation of various certification schemes that seek to promote sustainable production, such as those administered by some individual palm oil consumers and by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil.


I am most grateful to C. J. Breure, R. H. V. Corley, J-C. Jacquemard, V. Rao, N. R. Menon, and P. B. Tinker for many helpful comments and suggestions for improving the paper and for supplying useful references and information.


Chronology of Major Events in the History of the Oil Palm


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