Revolutionising agriculture: Bio-fertilisers from palm oil empty fruit bunches

On an industrial scale, bio-fertilisers from palm oil empty fruit bunches should be promoted as an alternative to the widespread use of chemical fertilisers in Malaysia.

palm oil EFB
Palm oil empty fruit bunches at Langkon, Sabah. Image: Uwe Aranas , CC BY-SA 3.0

There has been increasing public exposure on the potential use of bio-fertilisers—the use of natural, organic matter. In Malaysia, local universities have been promoting the application of bio-fertilisers as part of the broader effort to maximise the value of empty fruit bunches (EFB).

Bio-fertilisers are natural fertilisers that contain living microorganisms that permeate the rhizosphere and promote growth by increasing the supply or availability of primary nutrients to the host plant. The term, “rhizosphere” refers to the soil zone surrounding the plant roots where the biological and chemical features of the soil are influenced by the roots.

The use of bio-fertilisers is particularly evident in organic farming and the practice of composting for soil fertility as it is much more environmentally-friendly than chemical fertilisers. 

On an industrial scale, bio-fertilisers should be promoted as an alternative to the widespread use of chemical fertilisers in the country – not necessarily as a substitute, but as a preferred choice in the development of the agricultural sector and, by extension, the burgeoning green economy of the country.

In one fell swoop, the use of bio-fertilisers could render the conventional dual-practice of deploying microbial killers together chemical fertilisers “redundant”.

In a recent article published by Malaysiakini, Robert Hii of the non-governmental organisation Friends of Borneo, has called for the use of bio-fertilisers to reduce the emissions of Malaysia’s agricultural products, especially since it’s readily available.

Indeed, bio-fertilisers have already been in use in Malaysia – with pioneers such as BIO AG in Pahang and SOField Agrobio Resources in Sarawak, which have been helping farmers to increase yields while reducing operational costs and carbon emissions.

A specific use of bio-fertilisers is in relation to leguminous cover crops such as groundnut (Arachis hypogaea). These were used not only to enhance soil fertility and crop yields, but to protect against any possible soil erosion and minimise water losses, especially during drought season.

However, even though this practice has a precedent, it’s not well established. There are many opportunities for the innovative use and improvisation of our country’s rich natural resources to produce high quality, durable and effective bio-fertilisers.

With 90 million tonnes of EFB waste generated each year, the solid wastes actually represent a vast untapped source of potential biomass/ biodegradable bio-fertilisers. The EFB of oil palm can be recycled or “renewed” as humic (acidic) substances that enhance nutrient absorption pulsating with “bio-active energy” that could induce growth of high yield crops with superior qualities.

According to studies done at local universities, deploying biomass wastes from EFB as bio-fertilisers is much more cost-effective and better than the current commercial habit of transforming these into mulch (material that covers the soil’s surface) – which in effect serves the purpose as both microbial inoculants, and as substituting the role of leguminous cover crops as mentioned.  

Hence, as mulch, EFB wastes do not behave as bio-fertilisers but merely supplement and complement the existing use of chemical fertilisers. In fact, according to an analysis in the Journal of Oil Palm Research, there is little scientific evidence in support for the beneficial use of mulch.

Furthermore, the costs of collection and transportation is very high, and disposing of excess or surfeit supply which requires extensive burning (which impacts air quality) – through the “clean clearing technique.” Therefore, it’s debatable at least, that mulch is sustainable – economically and environmentally.

On the other hand, composting EFB wastes into bio-fertilisers have obvious benefits and advantages. The same studies researched at local universities as mentioned have shown pronounced and accentuated physiological and morphological growth of plants using bio-fertilisers (from EFB wastes). 

These take the form of height characteristics, disease resistance, photosynthetic rate & chlorophyll contents, nutrient availability, etc. The findings demonstrate the capability of bio-fertilisers composted from EFB wastes to fulfil the needs and requirements of plant growth on a fully-orbed and holistic basis, i.e., multifunctional.

In terms of costs and technological utilisation, oil palm biomass composting is – perhaps unsurprisingly – cheap and doesn’t require sophisticated (i.e., only low-level) mechanisms. In fact, there are also various methods of composting to suit the needs of the individual enterprise.

In 2013, the Microbiology Research Group at the University Malaysia Sabah (UMS) Biotechnology Research Institute developed a simple and easy way to accelerate the composting period to within 40 days. And there’s not only potentially a huge domestic market but also overseas market such as the European Union (EU) due to the latter’s policy on organic waste management and sustainable farming practices.

Bio-fertilisers can also represent additional income to oil palm and palm oil companies as they sell the excess supply to (local and foreign) counterparts that need bio-fertilisers.

Capitalising and harnessing biomass products also offer huge business opportunities for small and medium enterprises (SMEs), especially if they focus on bio-fertilisers that can be converted into eco- and bio-composite products across a range of sectors and industries.

The products can range from agriculture,  food production to furniture manufacturing. It’s time, therefore, for both the government to work closely together with players and other relevant stakeholders in the industry to ensure that the country makes full use of this potential to drive the economy forward and carve out a niche in the global markets. 

Lastly, beyond the palm oil industry, a concrete example can be seen in a breakthrough with the conversion of lignocellulosic fibres from discarded pineapple leaves to make strong materials for use to build the frames for unmanned aircraft or drones by researchers from Universiti Putra Malaysia.  

According to Professor Mohamed Thariq Hameed Sultan, “drones made out of the bio-composite material had a higher strength-to-weight ratio than those made from synthetic fibres and were also cheaper, lighter and easier to dispose of. And should the drone be damaged, the frame could be buried in the ground and would degrade within two weeks”. Not least, this project will boost the income of pineapple farmers, especially in light of the on-going economic impact of Covid-19.

In conclusion, bio-fertilisers should be integrated into a future 4th National Agricultural Policy (NAP) for sustainable oil palm agriculture as well as agriculture as a whole including the agenda of making it more climate-change resilient and contributing to reduction in carbon emissions.

Jason Loh Seong Wei is Head of Social, Law & Human Rights at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focussed on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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