There is the belief that oil palm competes with or threatens the coconut industry in the country. This is one of the reasons why many of our agricultural leaders are reluctant to provide substantial support to oil palm.

By Pablito Pamplona, PH. D.

Recent developments prove that this perception is wrong. What is happening is, the crops complement each other. In many cases, oil palm is a “big brother,” helping facilitate the export of coconut oil; providing a different target for the predators which control the insects destroying the coconut trees; pushing the yield of coconut to new heights; and providing a successful strategy for overcoming poverty in the coconut industry. Rather than being a threat, oil palm shows the path to greater heights in the development of coconut.

I found in my research that many strategies which made oil palm the most productive oil plant in the world and a top supplier of vegetable oil in the world market are applicable to coconut. According to Oil World (2008), the average oil yield of oilseed crops in terms of tons/hectare (t/ha) per year is 0.41, 0.65, 0.5, 0.8, and 3.8 for soybeans, rapeseed, sunflower, coconut, and oil palm, respectively. The world trading of vegetable oil in 2016 shows that 31% is supplied by oil palm, 25% by soybean, and only 1% by coconut (Fig 1). Applying relevant technologies of oil palm to increase coconut productivity can double or triple the share of coconut.

Countries which strongly developed both oil palm and coconut are reaping huge economic benefits today from both crops. Take the case of Indonesia. Its equally strong support for both oil palm and coconut made the country the number one producer of both coconut and palm oils. It dislodged the Philippines as a top producer of coconut oil in spite of a much smaller area devoted to the crop due to higher productivity. The Philippines is an importer of palm oil from Indonesia—a commodity for which the Philippines has wide stretches of idle land for production, but is prevented from doing so by the wrong perceptions of the crop.

PALM OIL FACILITATES THE EXPORT OF COCONUT OIL – The domestic vegetable oil market was once dominated by coconut oil. Now, the local market is dominated by palm oil, which helps provide the energy and nutritional needs of Filipinos. A larger portion of the coconut oil produced in the country is being exported and is no longer available on the domestic market.

According to the Philippine Statistics Authority in 2016, the country exported more than US$ 1.5 billion worth of coconut oil at a price of US$ 1,539/metric ton (MT). In the same year, the country imported 956,100 MT of palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia at a price of US$ 1,031/MT for a value of US$ 984,000. The country was able to export coconut oil at a price higher than when it is sold on the domestic market. This is facilitated by the availability of imported palm oil at a much lower price for use in the domestic market.

The Philippines has to import this huge amount of palm oil because the country has only 89,000 ha of oil palm producing less than 10% of the vegetable oil needs of the country.

OIL PALM RESCUED THE COCONUT FROM BRONTISPA – More than a decade ago, the coconut industry was threatened as millions of coconut trees were attacked by the coconut leaf bettle (CLB) or Brontisopa longissima. Then a Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) entomologist and scientist, Ven Gallego, discovered that the number one predator of CLB is a natural friend and pollinator of oil palm. This insect predator is abundant at the base of the leaves of fruiting oil palm trees.

Fig. 1. Percent contribution of various oil plants to the global supply of oils and fats. (Oil World, 2016)

What Ven Gallego and colleagues did was to collect the predators from oil palm trees, mass produce the insect in the laboratory, and release it among the CLB-infested coconut trees. The rest is history: the help of “big brother” oil palm saving the coconut industry. In communities where both oil palm and coconut are planted, Brontispa is becoming extinct.

OIL PALM PUSHES COCONUT YIELD TO NEW HEIGHTS –  

At present, the Philippine national average coconut yield is 46 nuts/tree per year or a vegetable oil yield of less than 800 kilograms (kg)/ha per year. Coconut farmers apply “jungle farming,” meaning, they plant low-yielding varieties and carry out limited weeding and fertilization. This is not so with other growers of oil palm, particularly in Malaysia, where high-yielding hybrids are adequately weeded and fertilized for high yields and the resulting income is also high.

However, they found this technique not as applicable to a traditional Malaysian variety, Malayan Tall, which produced only a maximum yield of 2.4 tons (t)/ha per year despite adequate weeding and fertilization. The small plot experiment was expanded to over 5,000 ha of coconut, from which they obtained similar high yield results.

A similar experiment was carried out at the Triple P Farms and Nursery (TPFN) in Kabacan, Cotabato almost a decade ago. The result was more amazing—high yields of Matag similar to those obtained at UPB in Malaysia. The experiment also saw the high yields of two varieties from Thailand, “Nam Wan” and “Nam Hom,” which produced over 150 nuts/tree per year (Fig. 2). This shows that there are coconut hybrids and varieties whose yield can be coaxed to new heights using good agricultural practices similar to those being used in oil palm.

These findings motivated many Malaysian investors to embark on wide-scale coconut farming using the hybrids Matag and Mawa, both in Malaysia and other countries. The Malaysians who are known for their oil palm have planted larger areas to Matag than the Filipinos who developed the hybrid. This motivated TPFN to put up a 40 ha coconut hybridization farm in 2016 to produce seednuts of the hybrids Matag, Nam Wan, and Nam Hom in the provinces of Agusan del Sur and Cotabato.

Side by side with the seednut production farm is a 15 ha farm planted to Matag, with two other Philippine hybrids, and five ha planted to Nam Hom to demonstrate the benefits of planting these hybrids and varieties using adequate weeding and fertilization. Moreover, TPFN is also conducting an experiment to find out if the current highest yielding coconut varieties in the country—namely Banga Dwarf and Baguer Dwarf with experimental yields at PCA Zamboanga Research Center of 3.5 and 4.5 t/ha per year, respectively—can be pushed higher using adequate weeding and fertilization.

Fig. 2. Oil palm and coconut at TPFN in Kabacan, Cotabato. Component technology developed in oil palm for early maturity and high yield was found to be also applicable to coconut.

OIL PALM DEMONSTRATES HOW COCONUT CAN BECOME A WAY TO OVERCOME POVERTY – Many oil palm farmers in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand earn incomes above the poverty threshold level with areas of three ha or less. In the Philippines, many coconut farmers earn incomes far below the poverty threshold level. A study of the situation shows that it is not the crop which makes one farmer rich and the other poor, but the extent of government policy and support. Both crops can liberate farmers from poverty with areas of less than three hectares using the right policy and strategy. The model for the right policy and strategy is widely used in oil palm; it’s applicable to coconut to help overcome widespread poverty.

In Malaysia, it is the policy and strategy of the government to ensure that the small landholders produce high oil palm yields for high incomes above the poverty level. Overcoming poverty is considered the foundation for developing the inclusiveness of the oil palm industry. The government encourages and helps oil palm farmers to replant oil palm trees with declining yields aged 25 years old and above.

APPLYING THE OIL PALM MODEL FOR OVERCOMING POVERTY AMONG FILIPINO COCONUT FARMERS – The Philippine government should implement a strategy of using coconut to help farmers overcome poverty, similar to what is done with oil palm in Malaysia. The PCA should use the huge coconut levy fund to embark on a grand program of, among others, financing the establishment of thousand hectares of commercial seed nut farms to produce millions of seedlings of hybrids and high yielding varieties. Priority should be given to the production of seedlings of Matag and other hybrids with potential yields of 5 to 7 t/ha per year.

The PCA should also support the establishment of wide commercial private seed farms to produce millions of seednuts of the varieties Tagnanan Tall, Catigan Dwarf, Banga Dwarf, and Baguer Dwarf with yields of 3.0, 3.0, 3.5, and 4.5 t/ha per year, respectively. Except for Tagnanan Tall, these dwarf varieties come to bearing less than three years after field planting. Varieties like Laguna Tall and Baybay Tall with a long period of immaturity of six or more years, and low yields of only 2.0 t/ha per year may be cultivated for special purposes only.

Large scale PCA seednut farms or PCA-supported private seednut farms can mass produce seednuts as early as four years after the planting of parental hybrids and high yielding dwarf varieties. When millions of quality seedlings become available, the PCA should encourage, financially assist, and capacitate coconut farmers to cut their tall low-yielding and senile coconut trees and replace these with seedlings of high yield varieties/hybrids in an estimated two million ha of coconut farms. This will make irrelevant the current policy and practice of the government prohibiting poor farmers from cutting low yielding coconut trees, as this policy keeps farmers in incomes below poverty levels. It will make irrelevant the current practice of distributing coconut seedlings with low yield potential, which simply worsen poverty.

The reason being advanced in the law prohibiting the cutting of these low yielding trees is to ensure that milling plants will have a sustained supply of copra for milling to coconut oil. This is a pro-milling initiative while at the same time being an anti-poor policy and is not a good strategy for saving the coconut industry.

A better policy is to help farmers cut these low yielding trees and replant these with seedlings of the hybrids or varieties which produce high yields and therefore, better incomes. This will benefit both the farmers and the milling plants with more copra for milling. In doing so, poverty in the coconut farms is reduced, if not overcome, and the coconut industry becomes inclusive.

EXPANSION OF OIL PALM SHOULD BE SUPPORTED FOR FOOD SECURITY – As for oil palm, food security demands that an important food item such as palm oil used as vegetable oil should be produced domestically to prevent a national food crisis. The government should allocate funds—not from the coconut levy fund, but from the annual regular government appropriation similar to those allocated to other food crops like rice, corn, and coconut—to expand oil palm planting to over 400,000 ha over the next ten years. PCA officials should articulate the need for such an allocation as it is mandated to develop the palm oil industry.

This should also help the country overcome the current palm oil importation deficit that benefits Indonesian and Malaysian farmers. As a highly versatile commodity, many new industrial uses of palm oil are discovered almost daily. Exporting countries may find that exporting palm oil as a biofuel and for other industrial uses can be done at a much higher price than when it is exported to the Philippines as vegetable oil. If that happens, the country will experience a food crisis. This will also harm the coconut industry as the coconut oil will be held for domestic use instead of being exported at a higher price to benefit coconut farmers. Expanding oil palm cultivation can benefit the coconut industry.

FINAL RECOMMENDATION – Our agricultural leaders should strongly support the development of both coconut and oil palm in a way which lets one complement the other. The Philippines is among the few countries blessed with the natural resources highly suitable not just for one but for both crops. The country should take advantage of this situation to benefit the environment and its people.

Successful oil palm strategies relevant to coconut should be used to boost the yield and productivity of coconut to help farmers growing the crop to overcome poverty. The oil palm industry should be expanded rapidly from the current 89,000 ha to over 400,000 ha to overcome the rapidly expanding importation caused about by the booming domestic consumption of oil palm. In 2012, the Philippines imported 485,000 MT of palm oil. This increased to 956,000 MT in 2016 and is projected to increase to 1,500,000 MT in 2020 with an estimated value of US$ 1.5 billion. This is such a big drain on our foreign reserves which should be overcome by the large-scale planting of oil palm.

Let’s employ science and the correct mindset to develop both oil palm and coconut to boost the agricultural development of this country and help our farmers overcome poverty so that they will be at par with or better than their counterparts in our neighboring countries.

This story appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s December 2017 issue.