Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Sime Darby maps oil palm genes, looks to boost output - Reuters

12/05/2009 (Reuters), Kuala Lumpur - Planter Sime Darby, Malaysia's largest listed firm, has created the first genetic blueprint of oil palms, saying on Tuesday the map will lead to higher output and planting of drought resistant trees.

Sime Darby is the first to map and use the oil palm sequence as Malaysia, the world's second largest producer of the vegetable oil, runs out of land to plant oil palms and is suffering a spell of dry weather that could hurt production.

The head of Sime Darby's Plantation division Azhar Abdul Hamid said the new sequence will lead to growing new varieties of oil palms and could see yields doubling to 10-12 tonnes of crude palm oil per hectare from Sime's current 5 tonnes.

"We assembled the largest genome in history using the latest technology and with this breakthrough... Sime Darby is ready to lead and change the future of the oil palm industry," Azhar told reporters.

At least 15 percent of the firm's estates in Malaysia will be planted over the next decade with new varieties of oil palm seeds with a view to making oil palms shorter to facilitate harvesting and to be more disease resistant, Azhar said.

"In 30 years, we are looking at all our Malaysian estates to be planted with new varities of oil palm," he said. Sime Darby has 329,470 hectares in the Southeast Asian country, with about another 200,000 in Indonesia.

Malaysia is running out of additional land apart from the 4.5 million hectares currently under palm oil. Production could also suffer from dry weather that could see benchmark palm oil prices climb higher.

Sime Darby initiated the project in 2003 with Synamatix, a biotechnology firm and 454 Life Sciences -- a unit of Swiss drugmaker Roche to map and analyse the genetic markers in the tropical oil palm.

They discovered the oil palm genome contains 31,000 genes, much higher than the human genome which holds 25,000 genes.

Prime Minister Najib Razak said the discoveries could help to stablise price volatility and ease fears of tight supplies in the industry which contributed about 10 percent of Malaysia's total export earnings of 663.5 billion ringgit ($188.8 billion) in 2008.

"Food supply needs will never be an issue again and we will be able to feed the need for alternative fuels as well with increased palm oil production," Najib said at the press conference.

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