Sime Darby Plantation publishes its oil palm genome to support the company’s ambition for a deforestation-free industry

Sime Darby Plantation publishes its oil palm genome to support the company’s ambition for a deforestation-free industry
  • Publication of the research is to enable other researchers to accelerate their ability to increase oil palm yield.
  • Over 10 years of research and RM150 million of investment in R&D has resulted in a much more detailed genome sequence than what has been publicly available before, with identification of the genetic markers for higher yield.
  • Today’s announcement is another milestone in the Company’s journey to draw the line on deforestation – because significantly improving yield opens up the opportunity for the Company and the industry to produce more oil without the need to clear more land.
  • The first commercial harvest of the Company’s higher yielding seeds, GenomeSelect™, demonstrated the potential to increase yield by 20 per cent, compared to the Company’s best planting material to date.
  • The Company is now using this breakthrough innovation to also develop oil palms that are easier to harvest and have climate change resilience and disease tolerance.

Sime Darby Plantation (SDP), the world’s largest producer of certified sustainable palm oil, today announced the publication of its oil palm genome research that has paved the way for the Company to produce significantly more oil palm yield on its existing land.

The genome sequence that Sime Darby Plantation (SDP) is sharing is 80 per cent more detailed than any findings that has been publicly available previously and is the result of over a decade of research led by SDP’s Chief Research and Development (R&D) Officer, Dr Harikrishna Kulaveerasingam. Since 2009, the Company has invested over RM150 million into R&D and established one of the biggest genotyping labs in Southeast Asia.

Rapid global growth in demand for palm oil has accelerated deforestation in some of the most environmentally sensitive and biodiverse parts of the world. The growth in the world’s population which is predicted to drive a 70 per cent increase in demand for food, will require the use of over 900 million hectares of new land worldwide and threaten forests globally.

As one of the world’s major agricultural industries, it is therefore more urgent than it has ever been for the palm oil industry to find ways of producing more oil with less land to help breach the food gap.

By putting the genome map into the public domain, SDP aims to get this research into the hands of scientific research centres and other major industry players to enable them to fast track their work on improving yield.

SDP’s research on the genome sequence also provides a much clearer route map to identify genetic markers for traits that will be crucial to the future success of the industry, including climate resilience and disease resistance that will facilitate more stable harvests across seasons.

The genome sequence also has relevance beyond palm oil for other palm industries, such as dates and coconut, that are seeking to modernise and increase their ability to produce more crop from less land.

“We are proud of the hugely dedicated work of our R&D teams and to be putting the results of their breakthrough innovation in genome sequencing into the hands of other researchers. Our ambition is to halt deforestation in the palm oil industry and that requires us to innovate and find new ways to operate.

“We hope that this research will open up new avenues for our industry to meet the demand growth while drawing the line on deforestation at the same time,” said SDP’s Group Managing Director, Mohamad Helmy Othman Basha.

As one of the world’s largest palm oil producers, SDP has the ability to take lab-based research directly out into the estates to trial progress in a range of real-world environments. This has already enabled SDP to produce its latest higher yielding seeds, called the GenomeSelectTM which received an accolade under the Energy and Sustainable Category at the Edison Award in 2017.

In the first commercial harvest since the seeds were first planted by SDP in 2016, the GenomeSelectTM demonstrated a 20 per cent increase in yield compared to the Company’s previously available best planting materials.

That represents more than double SDP’s average yield today and underpins confidence in the potential of genome research to deliver a step change in yield. SDP is now scaling up production of its GenomeSelectTM seeds to meet all of the Company’s own replanting needs within the next three years.

“I’m delighted that we are making our genome sequence publicly available. This has been ten years’ work for us, the team. We have been fortunate in being able to take pioneering research from the lab and put it to work in the plantation, and then prove its potential with the fruits of our first commercial harvest.

We believe that breakthrough innovations can up the game for productivity in the industry - and sharing the genome can save scientists years in their own research,” added Dr. Harikrishna.

The Company’s announcement today has been well received by the scientific community who have expressed interest in working together with SDP on this journey.

“It is amazing that the team led by Dr. Harikrishna has put together such a complex jigsaw puzzle. The team has put in place chemistry and biology platforms, an informatics team, and a mathematical model to solve this problem and the results are really impressive.

The days when companies could expand by going into more land or developing bigger plantations are over. If scientifically sound, scalable, and sustainable innovations like these are taken up by the industry - that will make all the difference,” said Professor Anthony Sinskey, Professor of Biology, MIT.

Last year, SDP released Crosscheck, an open-access online tool designed to increase supply chain traceability to the mill level and map that against risk areas in the forest. Crosscheck represented a step forward in creating a deforestation-free future both for the Company and the industry.

The publication of the genome map is another step in the Company’s journey. SDP is working to double its own yield and work towards the same goal for the entire palm oil industry, to meet the predicted growth in demand without clearing any more land.

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