Everyone knows palm oil. To many, it is synonymous with Malaysia. Though not native to the country, Malaysia has made palm oil a global leader in the oils and fats trade. The benefits are mutual though. While Malaysia has changed the destiny of palm oil for the better, palm oil has reciprocated by helping the country tackle rural poverty.
Consumers worldwide now recognise palm oil as one that offers unique advantages over other oils. It was once an almost unknown commodity hidden in the lush jungles of Western Africa. Thanks to palm oil, much of the poverty in rural Malaysia has disappeared. Felda is evidence of such transformation, which other countries try hard to replicate.
Over the years, palm oil has become a prime national asset. Each year, it brings billions of ringgit into Malaysia's coffers. It is also a major provider of employment. Growth is, however, an issue. Its expansion has slowed down considerably in recent years because of limited land. Many predict the most it can expand is five million or so hectares. It now stands at 4.5 million ha.
This is made even more challenging by environmentalists demanding a moratorium on the opening of new land for agriculture. Now the industry is looking to science for help. Scientists are now working hard to develop higher yielding oil palm to expand production. But this may take years. Many Malaysian palm oil companies have now ventured abroad to expand. Indonesia is one favourite destination. But lately, many have looked at Africa as another target.
With the projected stagnation in palm oil production in the country, new crops are being evaluated. One that has come to light belongs to the algae and the seaweed family.
At a recent Academy of Science Fellows inaugural lecture, Prof Phang Siew Moi of Universiti Malaya shared her findings from many years studying algae and seaweed.
Her results showed algae holds enormous economic potential. They confirm the growing scientific evidence on the efficacy of algae species as a source of many of the products the world needs.
Add to that the fact that algae can efficiently mop up carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas, the crop can help alleviate global warming and the consequent climate change.
One product being touted as a potential output of algae cultivation is biofuel. Studies have revealed that there are algal species that can rival palm oil's high yield on a per hectare basis. This means on the same crop area, algae can produce more oil than the oil palm. Some results suggest up to three to four times more. But more important is the fact that algae cultivation is not limited by land scarcity.
It can be grown on water. Some marine algae have been found to yield not only oil which can be converted to biofuel, but also other compounds that can be used in food and nutraceuticals. Scientists believe there are exotic algal species that can produce more bio-compounds for mankind. More research will unravel such treasures.
There are some working on algae as a business. The small seaweed industry in the waters off Sabah is a good example. But unfortunately, the downstream business of extraction and refining is mostly done outside Sabah. This means the country is losing out on the higher value products of seaweed. Similarly there are attempts to grow algae in the country.
But this has not been supported by the latest technology in terms of species selection as well as downstream processing. Even the research and development on algae in the country is not properly coordinated. It may be high time to change all this. If Malaysia is to efficiently tap into algae as a new growth sector, more coordination is called for. More resources may be needed to nurture and expand this industry.
It may be worth looking at the palm oil model. We need to institutionalise the support system to help grow the algal business into another instrument of wealth generation for the country. Looking at the many high value products that algae offer, the industry may prove to be even more lucrative than palm oil.
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