This week I’ve been in Sintang, West-Kalimantan. When we were driving on Tuesday through the fields in the smallholder area where I work, I noticed large piles of oil palm fruit bunches lying next to the road (see picture above). The bunches looked old: they didn’t shine and there were large amounts of loose fruits scattered around. Old bunches are a bad sign because the fruits should actually be processed in the mill within 24 hour after harvesting. This has everything to do with the quality of the oil. But before I explain that, I’d like to give some background information about oil palm fruits.
Oil palm fruits come in bunches, called ‘fresh fruit bunches’ (FFB) in oil palm terminology. The best I can think of to compare them with are bunches of grapes, but much more dense. Each ‘grape’ is protected by a large spine which sticks out a few centimetres beyond the fruit. The bunch is really big, on average 15-25 kg but sometimes up to 50 kg. The stalk is as thick as a foot (see picture). The weight of every bunch is made up for about one quarter of stalks and spines, all very tough. The other three quarters are the fruits, with some 500-1500 fruits per bunch. Usually the fruits are about the size of a grape, but they can become as large as plums. They are black in colour when they are not yet ripe, turning red and then orange as they ripen. When they are very ripe, they detach from the bunch and fall to the ground. The riper the fruit, the more oil it contains.
Each fruit in fact contains two different types of oil. The white kernel contains palm kernel oil, which is used for soap and detergents. The yellow outer flesh is very rich in crude palm oil (CPO), which makes up 20-26% of the total bunch weight. This means that a normal yield of 20 tonne fruit bunches per hectare per year corresponds to 4-5 tonne of crude palm oil. The oil can be used for many different purposes and it is what most people actually refer to when they say ‘palm oil’.
Whereas the palm kernel oil is safely stored within the woody shell, the crude palm oil is only protected by the soft outer skin of the fruit. As soon as the fruit or the bunch is detached from the palm, the oil starts to degrade. Due to oxidisation, the concentration of free fatty acids in the oil rises rapidly. Once it gets beyond 3%, the oil can no longer be sold on the world market. It is for this reason that fruits should be processed in the mill within 24 hours after harvesting, though 48 hours is usually still considered acceptable. This time pressure can be a problem for smallholder farmers. It makes them dependent on those higher up in the supply chain, especially truck drivers, traders, and mills. Also, there are peak seasons and low seasons in oil palm production, depending on the weather. During the peak season, mills that belong to a company with an own plantation will sometimes refuse the smallholder fruits and process only the bunches from their own plantations. Or the price will drop steeply. Of course, the same things happen when a farmer grows tomatoes, mangoes, or other perishable crops. But still, it’s important to realise that good farming is only part of what farmers need to get a decent income!
The problem with rancid oil isn’t relevant everywhere. In Thailand, for example, most of the production is for the domestic market, so no-one really cares about free fatty acids. In some parts of Africa, rancid palm oil is greatly appreciated for its aroma and taste. I ate a dish drowned in palm oil when I was in Ghana, and indeed the free fatty acids gave it a very particular taste. I won’t say it is my new favourite, but it definitely wasn’t bad. And the African continent remains a net importer of palm oil, so the quality issue is not so relevant there. In Indonesia, there is a huge domestic market as well. There is also a large demand for biodiesel, for which quality standards are not stringent at all. I personally don’t think biofuels are such a great idea, but in this case the biodiesel markets serves a purpose
Despite all that, piles of old bunches along the roadside usually mean that someone or something in the supply chain is not functioning properly. In Sintang, the farmers are all hoping for a new mill so that they can sell more fruit bunches, and I am hoping for them as well. But sometimes I have mixed feelings. Sintang is close to the Heart of Borneo, a rainforest conservation area larger than the UK, which stretches into Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. Building more mills in Sintang means an incentive to clear more land for oil palm. But not building more mills in Sintang means wasting good fruit bunches, for which precious forest has already been cut. It also means less income for the farmers. So, who is say what is right and what is wrong?
WWF Heart of Borneo project: http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/borneo_forests/about_borneo_forests/
Palm oil processing in Ghana: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1573521412000310