Ganoderma threat to oil palm industry

I wish to refer to Malaysiakini's report "Malaysia to lose top palm oil status to Indonesia: industry" Feb 27, 06.

The main reason cited in the report is that Indonesia has a vast virgin landmass suitable for oil palm plantations and huge areas have already been planted with oil palm trees in recent years, which are reaching maturity soon.

But those in the know are concerned that Malaysia's oil palm industry is also under threat as it is faced with two other serious problems. And they are: a lack of manpower resources and a prevailing incurable oil palm disease called Ganoderma Basal Stem Rot (BSR).

It is evident that more than ninety percent of the manual workers engaged in our oil palm plantations are immigrants and the majority of them are Indonesians. They are employed to carry out manual works like harvestings, weeding and other general maintenance works. The work is tough and these workers have to work long hours. But they are lowly-paid and therefore very few locals are interested to work in these plantations.

Because of the nature of work and low wages, the turnover of labor force is great. Many workers would just abandon their employers and do not mind to work as illegal immigrants with another plantation owner if they were offered a Ringgit or two more a day.

Therefore maintaining an adequate and experienced labor force in an oil palm plantation in Malaysia is difficult. This has led many big plantation owners to venture to other countries where the required labor force is readily available.

The BSR disease, which usually affects matured palms, is caused by a type of shelf or bracket fungus, Ganoderma and is lethal and incurable though it has been identified more than fifty years ago. The disease is more prevalent in plantations, which have been replanted from coconut or oil palms. During replanting, if the felled oil palm trunks and stumps are left to rot in the field, various fruiting bodies of Ganoderma may be produced and thrive.

If not detected early and no control measures taken, death of the affected trees may come within 6 to 12 months after symptoms develop, though in some affected plants they may hang on for several more years.

It was reported that initially, the disease was mainly confined to plantations in coastal areas. Now it has not only reached epidemic proportions in coastal areas but also made considerable inroads into inland soils.

It has also been reported that BSR disease is present in more than 50% of the oil palm plantations in Peninsular Malaysia. Without treatment, more than 80% of the affected plants may die by the time they reach less than halfway through their lifespan. The losses can amount to a reduction of 25% to 45% yield in fresh fruit bunches.

Sad to say, although this deadly disease has long been discovered there is currently no effective measure to eliminate it. Further, there is currently not enough R&D done to address this deadly disease.

It is alarming to note that Ganoderma BSR is fast becoming a major threat to oil palm cultivation and palm oil production in Malaysia.

Many of the oil palm plantations in Malaysia are going into third generation of replanting and with no solution to cure or eradicate this disease in sight, it is no wonder that many Malaysian plantation companies are starting to venture into oil palm cultivation in Indonesia which has greater virgin land mass and adequate labor force.

It is indeed sad to note that Indonesia would soon displace Malaysia as a market leader in palm oil production. 2008