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BioNET-INTERNATIONAL

Why taxonomy matters
A series of case studies highlighting Taxonomy's Value to Society
www.bionet-intl.org/case_studies

Implementing the Global Taxonomy Initiative of the CBD
CASE STUDY 14
The Oil Palm Mystery: taxonomy results in $370million/year yield increase and removes the need for costly, ineffective manual pollination

Relevant sector: Agriculture; oil palm industry; pollinators

Geographic location: Malaysia; South East Asia; West Africa; Cameroon

Problem statement: Although native to West Africa, the oil palm’s high commercial value has led to its introduction in many regions of the world. Malaysia was the first country (1917) to embark on large-scale planting and processing of oil palm but just 25 years ago the newly established oil palm estates of SE Asia were frustratingly failing to produce fruit. The necessary cross-fertilisation was generally believed to be via wind-pollination. Failure was blamed on the heavy rains in the region and to make the plantations viable, hundreds of local people were employed to pollinate the palms by hand. This costly process did increase yields, but they were still significantly lower than in Africa.

Methods: Investigations done into the pollinating agents in SE Asia showed that they were less effective than the pollinating agent in West Africa (the weevil). Further detailed studies were carried out in Cameroon of the six Elaeidobius species of weevils. E. kamerunicus was chosen as the most promising for Malaysian conditions. Following intensive screening tests and after obtaining clearance to import the beetles into Malaysia, a captive-breeding programme began. Two releases of the weevil were made in 1981 on two oil palm estates. The weevil was subsequently introduced to Sabah, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Sumatra and Thailand, where it has successfully established and quickly increased yields. It has since been introduced to other parts of Africa and South America as well.

Outcomes and Impacts: Initial entomological studies showed conclusively for the first time that insect pollination is important. Research into the pollinators of SE Asia showed that they were not as effective at increasing yields as in Africa. Within a year of the release of E.kamerunicus into Malaysia, the weevils had spread throughout the entire Peninsula and were thriving in all the plantations, with impressive increases in yields. Thanks to this small West African weevil, Malaysia and Indonesia are now the world's leading producers of palm oil. It was estimated that Malaysian palm oil output in 1982 alone increased by 400,000 tonnes and palm kernels by 300,000 tonnes, with a total value of US$370 million. Malaysia is now the largest producer and exporter of palm oil in the world, accounting for 52% of world production and 64% of world exports in 1997. Worldwide, oil palm fruit yield has risen from 70,000 hectogramme/hectare in 1980 to 122,000 hg/ha in 2001. This study provided a strong case for the use of beneficial insects in agriculture. A positive knock-on effect is that the weevil's success encouraged plantation owners to look into natural biological control to manage the palm's insect pests, so that chemical treatments, harmful to the pollinating weevil and so likely to depress palm fruit yields, could be avoided.

Lessons: Without the taxonomic expertise that identified an insect pollinator, costly and less-effective manual pollination might still be in use. Further, without sufficient taxonomic expertise to provide identifications to the species level, researchers would have worked with all 6 members of the genus, spent significant funds and may not have found the solution.

Reference: Not available

Contact information: Dave Moore, CABI Bioscience UK, Bakeham Lane, Surrey, TW20 9TY, UK. Tel: +44 1491 829080. Fax: +44 1491 829100. email: d.moore@cabi.org