Renewable Energy

Malaysia’s Net-Zero Plan requires Sensitivity Analysis

Malaysia is depending heavily on natural carbon sinks from its forest land to act as a key source of carbon removals from the atmosphere.

Tropical Rainforest
Tropical Rainforest

Based on the Biennial National GHG inventory update (BUR) submitted to the United Nations, Malaysia emitted a total of 335 million tonnes CO2 in 2016. More than three quarters (78%) of these emissions were stated to be offset by the country’s forest carbon sink, which amounted to 260 million tonnes CO2. This leaves a net emissions gap of 75 million tonnes CO2, to be dealt with mainly through displacement of fossil fuel energy with renewable energy. Fossil fuel energy accounted for 79.4% of the total carbon emissions.

Based on the above, a 28% (75÷260) shortfall in the sequestration capacity will require doubling the renewable energy generation to maintain Net-Zero emissions.

Since Malaysia is relying heavily on its natural carbon sinks, it is imperative that a detailed sensitivity analysis should be carried out on all variables in modelling the sequestration capacity of forest land.

If the sensitivity analysis indicates that the risk of loosing the forest land sequestration capacity in future is high, due to any of the variables, then, the required renewable energy generation projection will need to be upscaled to cater for any possible shortfall. The upcoming National Energy Policy needs to take this risk assessment into account.

In this respect, a mere maintaining of more than 50% of its land area as forests will not guarantee the expected sequestration capacity in the years to come. The forest needs to be continuously attended to, to keep it in an invigorated growth state. Sustainable management of forest and conservation of carbon stocks need to be ongoing practices. Afforestation, reforestation, natural  regeneration, forest protection and conservation of forest areas are all necessary to attain a high sequestration capacity.

Even then, when the reforested areas matures, its carbon stock would gradually stabilise at high level but its net yearly sequestration capacity contribution would decline.

Eventually most forms of anthropogenic emissions will need to be halted to meet the Net-Zero emissions targets. Thus, in time to come, a 100% halt on use of fossil fuel would be required without any other forms of sequestration.

There should not be a confusion between conservation of forest carbon stock and the carbon sequestration capacity of the forest land. Sequestration capacity is equal to the rate of increase of carbon stock as a result of forest growth.

For example, a recent publication by a Malaysian university Assessment of Carbon Stock in Forest Biomass and Emission Reduction Potential in Malaysia, has modelled the carbon stock vs sequestration capacity of Malaysian forest land. The expert study reveals that the sequestration capacity of our forest land between the years 2011 and 2016 was only about 47 million tonnes CO2 a year, a far cry from the 260 million tonnes a year stated in the Biennial National GHG inventory.

The study further estimates that under Business as Usual (BAU) practices, between the years 2016 and 2050 Malaysia’s existing forests would net emit, about 18.25 million tonnes of CO2 yearly into the atmosphere, rather than sequester from the atmosphere. Thus, the assumptions used for sequestration capacity in the projections made in the 12th Malaysia Plan to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 need to be carefully scrutinised.

Any error in the GHG inventory on forest land as a result of sequestration capacity change would adversely affect our Net-Zero projections together with the reduction of the intensity of greenhouse gas (GHG) emission across the economy by 45% based on the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Serious implications will arise unless we correct the trajectory early.

Because of its importance, a separate chapter on forest management, monitoring and reporting mechanisms and plans could perhaps be included in the 12th Malaysia Plan MTR and annual budgets.

The Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources (KeTSA), which is responsible for forest management has a lot on its plate, that is, to balance renewable energy generation on the one hand with managing our forest carbon sink, on the other.

Climate Change

The Climate Pandemic

No one is safe, until everyone is.

The world is currently reeling from the devastation of the Corona virus pandemic.

Everyone is facing extraordinary challenges, with the pandemic having a catastrophic effect on lives and livelihoods. The impact of the pandemic on economies and healthcare systems is immeasuarable.

We keep hearing of thousands of SMEs, and large and small hotels, shutting down, resulting in widespread job losses. EPF savings are being emptied fast as families struggle to survive. The Government appears to be in chaos. We can foresee a boom in non-performing loans and perhaps even the banking sector collapsing.

This scenario is not entirely unanticipated. In fact, in 2005, President George W. Bush (after reading a book about the 1918 flu pandemic) already forewarned: ‘If we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare’.

When President Bush first told his aides that he wanted to focus on the potential of a global pandemic, many of them harboured doubts. However, on his insistence novel ways of vaccine development begun … and so the foundation was laid.

Thanks to this foresight and to the new vaccines for the Corona virus being able to be developed rapidly, there is some hope for restoration in the coming years.

Similarly, in spite of the forewarnings, when the Wuhan virus was first announced in December 2019, Malaysia like many other countries did not take it seriously – even after hearing of the crises in Italy, Spain, UK, and USA. It seemed too distant to affect us. There wasn’t a speedy response, at first by the government, businesses and people themselves.

There were many adamant naysayers – many not even wanting to register for the vaccination in the beginning, who instead opted to rely on others to take the vaccine to flatten the curve, displaying a selfish attitude.

Let’s now turn to Climate Change. The Climate Change scenario is not too different. It’s silent but slowly and steadily getting more and more intensive. And we risk being boiled like a frog. Remember the analogy that if you drop a frog into hot water it will leap out, but if you put it in cold water and turn the cooker up it will not know until it has boiled.

It took many decades of painstaking research by many scientists to understand the root cause of climate change.

As far back as in the year 1985, Ramanathan, an Indian scientist, and collaborators announced that global warming may come twice as fast as expected, from the rise of methane and other trace greenhouse gases.

Following these predictions, Climate Change first became front-page news 33 years ago in 1988, when the potentially disruptive impact of heat-trapping emissions from burning fossil fuels and rain forests were reported.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations body, was established and its first report in 1990 said the world has been warming steadily and increased future warming seems likely.

Since then, we have had yearly United Nations sponsored Climate Change Summits. Thus, Mankind has been sufficiently warned.

There are similarities between the Corona virus pandemic and Climate Change.

Just like in the case of Corona virus pandemic when many were doubtful, global warming skeptics are hard at work to sprinkle doubts as to the cause of the global warming that leads to Climate Change. They do their utmost to de-couple climate change from greenhouse gas emissions. This is causing a delay to combat Climate Change.

How responsive are the governments, businesses and people to the dangers of Climate Change and to overcoming or mitigating them? At least, now, after witnessing the current pandemic, do they realise that climate change will also have similar catastrophic and pandemic repercussions on the world, if not worse?

Like the Corona virus pandemic, the Climate Change pandemic will also have crippling effects on lives, livehoods and the global economy – but on an even bigger scale.

It’s expected to endanger essential global public good, human health, and it will impact an already weakened global economy, affecting it both from the supply and demand side, whether through the interruption of production chains – which will severely hurt global trade – or through the loss of income and profitability due to higher unemployment and disrupted agriculture. This will severely affect countries that export agricultural commodities like palm oil, besides causing potential widespread famine.

The trajectory is clear — hotter heat waves, drier droughts, bigger storm surges and greater snowfall. The recent record-breaking heatwave witnessed in Canada and western US and reported deaths linked to the heatwave are reminders of the increasing catastrophe to befall the Earth as CO2 levels continue to rise.

Warming and acidification due to rising CO2 levels cause sea levels to rise with receding shorelines and implications for flooding / inundation of low-lying islands. Ocean acidification will have adverse impacts on fisheries and aquaculture.

No country will be able to fight the Climate pandemic without the kind of global and regional cooperation on an international scale as we are seeing now in the case of the present Covid pandemic.

We have heard it before that “No one is safe, until everyone is” – it does not matter where the emissions take place on Earth, this is why we need a global response urgently to address Climate Change.

All of us need to rethink very carefully, whether we are doing our part to mitigate climate change and the horrific consequences it could potentially wreak. We need a new vision to focus ourselves on how to cope with the extremely difficult scenario that lies before us if we don’t act now.

We need to realise one big difference, that is, unlike disease pandemics, climate change is not reversible and there will be no vaccine to give hope, when that comes, to make it go away.

We can halt its progression, but won’t be able to reverse it. Climate action to halt or slowdown its progression requires transformation of economic, energy, and technological systems and policies, and their governance.

Think of your carbon emissions, energy inefficiencies, and its impact on climate change. The palm oil mills hold a very great potential to make the planet a better place for all.

Energy Efficiency Oil Palm

Energy Efficiency and the Liberation of Biomass Fuel from Palm Oil Mills

Recycling of excessive amounts of biomass residue into boiler furnace is obscure and not well implied.

Palm oil mills are complete industrial installations within themselves, producing their own supply of steam and electricity by utilising waste materials generated during the oil extraction process. The steam is used for the sterilization of fresh fruit bunches (FFB) and oil clarification processes, whereas the electricity is used to power the mill.

Oil Palm Mesocarp fibre
Mesocarp Fibre

The residue at the end of the oil and kernel extraction processes is pressed oil palm mesocarp fibre (MF) and palm kernel shell (PKS) comprising about 14 % and 6 % respectively of the FFB. These biomass materials are then recycled as boiler fuel for high-pressure steam generation. Traditionally, owing to the ready supply of large amounts of waste oil palm mesocarp fibre and palm kernel shell, right at their doorstep, mills have enjoyed the luxury of generating copious amounts of steam while disregarding its inefficient use along with the current state of inefficient operation of the process steam system, power plant and boilers. This generous and abundant steam supply has afforded a highly wasteful management of process steam.

Renewable Energy

Need to tackle the trust deficit

Palm oil industry needs to tackle the trust deficit in the food product marketplace, ensuring environmental sustainability, food safety and transparency.

THE European Commission’s decision to phase out palm oil biofuels is based on the high carbon footprint of palm oil production and as a mechanism for protection against indirect land use change (iLUC) (and indirectly also against food price hikes in developing countries).

Therefore, nothing can be done at this stage against the phasing out. What is coming next is the same issue of high carbon emissions and food safety of palm oil in food products. Remember 3-MCPD? (It is an organic chemical compound which is the most common member of chemical food contaminants and is suspected to be carcinogenic to humans).

This is not the first “fight” on the carbon emissions front. The first was with the United States (US) government (2009-2014) when Malaysia and Indonesia lost the argument. The difference this time is that Europe engages with its partner countries, but still does not deviate from the principles of science.

From the argument with the US, it is demonstrated that developed countries want trade-partner countries to recognise the urgency of climate change and initiate some action against it.

The European directive is to bring about good behavioural change in the palm oil industry.

The severity and urgency of climate change should have been clear through attendance at the 24 meetings of the Conference of the Parties (COP) since the Rio Declaration (1992). In spite of this, the government and the palm oil industry dismiss its relevance to the industry, while the sense of urgency among western countries makes such a posture unacceptable. The industry can contribute new low carbon energy to mitigate its carbon emissions and is expected to act on it particularly seriously.

Sustainability of palm oil production is closely related to its carbon footprint. Apart from conversion of rainforest land and peatland into oil palm plantations, the other major activities are application of fertiliser and treatment of palm oil mill effluents, which release greenhouse gases that leave a large carbon footprint.

The palm oil industry needs to mitigate the present carbon emissions in its production methods to prove that they are environmentally sustainable.

Let’s not forget that between the Conference of the Parties (COP) at Copenhagen in 2009 and the COP21 Paris Accord on Climate Change in 2015 — a span of six years — the planted area of oil palm has increased by a million hectares as government statistics indicate. Information withheld is that a major extent of expansion has involved peatland drainage in the increased planted area.

The Rubber Industry Smallholders Development Authority (Risda)’s statement that almost 45 per cent of land area in Malaysia consists of peat soils for palm tree cultivation and unused or idle peat land was also used for palm oil trees, is the most damaging to date.

The government has tried hard to deny cultivating on peatland but Risda has indicated otherwise.

Cultivating oil palm on peatland compared to planting in mineral soil causes more than 10 times greenhouse gas emission into the atmosphere for many years — i.e. up to 170 tonnes of CO2 per ha per year.

On the concern for the well-being of smallholders, it’s like crying over spilt milk, when attention should have been directed to negotiating the definition of a smallholder to include land size of up to five hectares, which was laid on the table by the EU.

Smallholders’ well-being is our problem, not the EU’s.

To safeguard palm oil as a food source and grow the market share, the primary industries minister must convince the EU that Malaysia is genuinely concerned about climate change, and as proof of action, convey to the EU what Malaysia intends to do next.

Both the US government and the European Commission have suggested that the massive amount of biomass residue generated at palm oil mills be used efficiently for renewable energy generation to reduce carbon emissions and prosper the palm oil industry.

The urgency of climate change will drive every industry to account for the energy, water and chemicals it uses. This is inevitable.

This article first appeared in New Straits Times Online, on April 6, 2019. Kuala Lumpur

Climate Change Energy Efficiency

Air pollution mitigating measures for steam boiler operation at palm oil mills

Do we just take a pain-killer? Why not treat the root cause of the pain?

greenhouse gas

Black smoke emissions into the atmosphere from boiler flue-gas stacks is a common sight in rural Malaysia, where the majority of palm oil mills are located. More so than the visible black smoke emissions are the invisible gaseous and particulate matter spewing out from the flue-gas stack. The main pollutant of concern is the particulate matter present in the stack discharge that gives rise to suspended atmospheric particulate matter at ground level in the surrounding areas of the palm oil mills. This poses serious health concerns among the mill workers and residents who live or work in the neighbourhood around the mills.

Oil Palm

How Cancer causing substances crept into food products containing palm oil?

The rise in 3-MCPD in Malaysian palm oil is attributed to adulteration of production oil with hazardous waste constituents due to changes in extraction process at palm oil mills to recover declining oil extraction rates (OER), over the years by ways of:

  • Recycling steriliser condensate into the production oil process to recover its constituent residual oil.
  • Recycling empty fruit bunch pressed liquor into the production oil process to recover its constituent residual oil.

palm oil margarine

3-MCPD levels found in refined palm oil and palm fats are the highest in crude palm oil sourced from Malaysia. While it is known that several other refined food oils contain traces of the contaminant, Malaysian palm oil contains 3 to 14 mg/kg, which is up to 14 times higher than the maximum save level set by the European Food Safety Authority.

Interestingly, it was recently (May 2017) reported that “As Malaysia steps into the second century of commercial oil palm planting, … the challenges facing the industry will only continue to intensify.” Industry captains were quoted as saying that “In order to face the increasing demands on the industry, Malaysia needs to work towards creating a distinguished Malaysian brand for palm oil, which will be accepted as the preferred choice by global customers.”

The above statements come in the face of the industry grappling with allegations of cancer health concerns due to the use of palm oil in food products, for example, Nutella. The allegation was related to the occurrence of 3-monochloropropanediol (3-MCPD) and Glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE) in palm oil. Should we be worried?

When oil palm fresh fruit bunches (FFBs) are harvested from the trees, their fall from great height onto the ground shatters the fruits around the tree. It is unavoidable that both fruit bunches and the shattered loose fruits pick up traces of soil, fertiliser, pesticides (significantly rat poison dispersed in the fields to control rodent population) and weed killers in the fields. By recycling the steriliser condensate and empty fruit bunch (EFB) pressed liquor into the production oil process, the hazardous waste constituents adhering to the fresh fruit bunches are introduced into the production oil. Chlorine compounds present in the waste constituents find its way into crude palm oil (CPO) and reacts with the oil acting as a requisite chlorine precursor in the formation of 3-MCPD ester that is carcinogenic.

Indeed, 3-MCPD and GE are found in high levels in refined palm oil and palm fats and their values are highest in refined palm oil sourced from Malaysia and five to 10 times higher compared to most other refined food oils. Actually, potential safety issues in relation to these compounds were first raised more than 10 years ago, in 2006, and we must concede that since then the food industry has been involved in extensive research to investigate mitigation efforts.

Regulatory sources in Europe state that as a result of voluntary steps taken by food producers to lower consumer exposure, the levels of GE in refined palm oil imported into Europe have somewhat reduced between 2010 and 2015. These voluntary efforts must be recognised and praised. However, the content of 3-MCPD and its fatty acid esters in refined palm oil has not reduced significantly during the period. Mitigation of 3-MCPD ester levels has been particularly challenging and its levels in refined palm oil in Europe remain high at 7.9 mg/kg.

Chlorine precursors present in crude palm oil (CPO) leads to formation of 3-MCPD ester and therefore the key for low 3-MCPD ester content is at the oil palm mills and plantations. As of today, the chlorine sources can only be effectively removed during CPO production at the oil mill, where conversion of chlorinated substances starts during sterilisation of FFB at the mills. Thus the focus on mitigation strategies should be at plantation field practices and the oil extraction processes at the mills.

Looking back, in May 2016, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) warned that contaminants in palm oil raise potential health concerns across the board. The EFSA found that the major cancer concern is over 3-MCPD and GE. This was confirmed in a statement by the Chair of EFSA’s expert Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain, Helle Knutsen, that “There is sufficient evidence, that these contaminants pose a cancer risk”.

Besides EFSA, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) (cancer agency of the World Health Organization) also identified 3-MCPD esters, one of the main contaminants in refined palm oil, as “possibly carcinogenic to humans“.

3-MCPD esters are potential carcinogens due to the fact that they readily hydrolyse into the free form 3-MCPD during digestion in the gastrointestinal tract, which has been found to be carcinogenic inducing tumours in various organs; of which the kidney is the main target organ. So it’s easy to understand why significant effort must be devoted to inhibit and eliminate the formation of 3-MCPD esters. Using available toxicological data, EFSA has defined the tolerable daily intake (TDI) level for 3-MCPD (including esters) at 0.8 µg/kg bodyweight. In order to meet the defined TDI, EFSA has set a target for maximum level of 3-MCPD ester in refined palm oil at 1.0 mg/kg.

Palm oil has a high capacity for the formation of the esters and yet is an important edible oil in human nutrition. Palm oil and palm fats are used in many food products such as peanut butter, margarine, pastries and cakes, bread spreads like Nutella.

Food safety is a key issue for consumers and therefore, an important factor in food trade. The palm oil industry should be aware that a large portion of palm oil produced is destined for human consumption and of the food safety requirements that should have stringent regulations.

Close collaboration between governments and industry is becoming more and more critical as the increased globalisation of the food trade has increased the risk and spread of contaminated food that uses palm oil as an ingredient.

How are carcinogenic substances formed in palm oil?

3-MCPD is a chlorinated analogue of glycerol having a chlorine atom and 3-MCPD esters in palm oil have been found to be mainly formed during the refining process of crude palm oil (CPO), when the oil is heated to remove its characteristic smell and deep orange colour. Its effective formation occurs at 140 degrees Celsius in the presence of chlorine precursors. Chlorine-containing compounds act as chlorine donors for the formation of 3-MCPD esters.

Chlorine precursors are present in the crude palm oil (CPO) produced at the palm oil extraction mills and therefore, reduction or avoidance of chlorine precursors in the raw material before refining would seem to be the most effective mitigation measure. Related to this, knowledge of chlorine donor sources is considered to be a key point.

The chlorine can be traced to inorganic chlorine from the soil, fertilisers, pesticides and weed killers in palm oil production. There can be other sources of chlorine coming into contact with palm oil during the extraction process, for example, raw water treatment flocculants.

Harvesting technique, handling and processing approach have a strong influence on the capability of crude palm oil to form 3-MCPD esters and related compounds. These conditions influence the amount of chlorine-containing compounds (input of inorganic or organic chlorine-containing compound via salts in the soil, pesticides or weed killers).

One solution to reduce the capability of the oil to form MCPD esters and related compounds can be achieved by optimising and shortening the routes between fruit harvest and crude oil production.

The contaminants adhering to the fresh fruit bunches can be drastically removed during CPO production at palm oil mills. It has been suggested that water washing the fresh fruit bunches (FFBs) upon arrival at the mill would be an effective method, however, this could be cumbersome. Rinsing CPO with a mixture of water and ethanol prior to refining may not be effective in eliminating chlorine content in the oil besides being uneconomical.

Preventing adulteration of production oil with hazardous waste constituents by adhering to proper time-tested extraction process at the mills still remains a common-sense effective measure.

How do carcinogenic substances sneak into palm oil?

Gradually, over the years since the 1980s, the palm oil extraction process has undergone many changes, significantly affecting the contamination of the production CPO, unfortunately it appears, for the worse.

This first step in the palm oil extraction process involves sterilisation of fresh fruit bunches (FFB) and this is a crucial step, because it affects the final oil quality. Sterilisation using the conventional horizontal sterilisers can in fact help to reduce or avoid contaminants in the raw material before processing the fruit pulp. The steam condensing over the fruit surface in shallow fruit bunch stacks in cages provides copious condensation to rinse off the contaminants picked up in the field. The shallow fruit bunch stack facilitates condensate drainage. While most contaminants are rinsed off the fruit surfaces and drained off with the steriliser condensate, some will tend to be soaked up and retained by the empty fruit bunches.

We also have to take note that with the introduction of oil palm weevil, Elaidobius kamerunicus, for effective pollination in the late 1970s, compactness of the fruits in bunches has increased which in turn has led to an increase in the number of unstripped fruits in the sterilised bunches. In order to mitigate the resulting increased oil loss through the unstripped fruits, triple peak sterilisation with longer sterilisation duration was adopted. Unfortunately, prolonged sterilisation causes increase in oil loss in the steriliser condensate and bunch stalks. Unstripped fruit count still remains an issue in mills where FFB quality (ripeness) is inconsistent.

In the 1990s, vertical sterilisers were introduced in palm oil mills to facilitate the conveying of fruit bunches by motorised conveyors and avoiding the use of fruit cages. The considerable fruit bunch stacking height (6-8 metres) and resulting compression in the vertical vessel tends to cause high oil absorption of bunch stalks and considerable oil loss in the sterilizer condensate, affecting process efficiency. As with the oil, the hazardous waste contaminants were absorbed and retained in the empty fruit bunches augmented by poor drainage.

To address the above issues and in order to improve oil yield, many mills have resorted to recycling oil decanted from the steriliser condensate into production oil process. Similarly, oil absorbed by empty fruit bunches is recovered by pressing the EFB and recycling the EFB pressed liquor into the oil production process. These process changes that took place progressively since the 1990s have introduced the hazardous waste contaminants to the production oil and seem to be the major cause of presence of chlorine precursors in CPO.

Analysis of CPO originating from different mills in Malaysia subjected to refining conditions has shown that the capacity for the formation of the 3-MCPD ester and related compounds range from 3-14 mg/kg. This great variation may provide a pointer to practices in the extraction mills that contribute to the high capacity for the formation of the esters at the refining stage.

How did all these begin?

Prior to the 1980s, most oil palm plantations in Malaysia were owned by foreign entities and managed by British agency houses, for example, Harrisons & Crosfield, Guthrie, Barlows Boustead and Sime Darby. Others were owned and managed by European companies, such as Anglo-Dutch Unilever, Franco-Belgian Socfin and Scandinavian United Plantations. These companies developed Malaysian oil palm plantations and estate-based palm oil extraction mills to produce palm oil as an edible product and were conscious and vigilant that the palm oil is meant to be served on the tables as a food product for European consumption. Both plantation practices and mill processes were consciously carried out as a food industry.

Since the 1980s, most of these plantations were acquired either by the government or Malaysian companies.

Government development agencies, like FELDA, FELCRA and RISDA began to cultivate oil palm on newly opened land areas. Their plantations continue to be managed by smallholders who sell their crops to be processed by central facilities in government-related palm oil extraction mills.

Malaysian companies also aggressively ventured into palm oil plantations, either through acquisition of existing estates or development of green field plantations. Companies like, IOI, KLK and PPB fall under this category. These companies built and operate their estate-based palm oil extraction mills to process their crop.

Also, smallholders began to cultivate oil palm on their land and today there are more than 550,000 small farmers who account for close to 40% of the total oil palm planted area. Smallholders are taken to mean family-based enterprises who cultivate oil palm from less than 50 hectares of land. For processing their fresh fruit bunches (FFB) smallholders depend on private independent mills. Thus, the local private palm oil processing industry developed with proliferation of private independent mills, which purchase FFB from the smallholders to produce crude palm oil and kernels.

Today, the palm oil processing industry consists of about 170 estate-based palm oil mills, 105 government-related palm oil mills and 190 private independent palm oil mills comprising about 37%, 22% and 41 % respectively of the total industry processing capacity.

The government-related palm oil mills and private independent palm oil mills jointly comprise a whopping 63 % of the industry’s processing capacity. At times, these entities appear to be oblivious of the final usage of their produce or not have the capacity to exercise control of the quality of either the FFB that they purchase or the crude oil that they produce. These sectors of the industry are the major cause of the contamination of palm oil with questionable substances. The crude palm oil from these industry sectors pose health risks related to palm oil.

Prior to the 1980s, the estate-based oil palm plantations owned and managed by foreign entities, were conscious that they were producing food product for European consumption and therefore adhered to strict sanitation practices. Sources of contamination were isolated from the main product.

Stringent rules were adhered to ensure FFB quality by proper harvesting and handling standards. Field practices minimised the contamination. Fruits harvested were transported to the mills and processed within the same day.

The steriliser condensate contains leached out palm oil with traces of contaminants picked up in the fields. The residual oil from the steriliser condensate was decanted and sold separately in drums as sludge oil for low value products, such as laundry detergents. Similarly, process tank and storage tank were cleaned regularly and washings were sold as sludge oil.

After separation of the fruits the empty fruit bunches (EFB) were discarded. Fruit pulp mass passing to digesters (MPD) after being stripped of empty bunch stalks were regularly analysed and monitored to ensure that a minimum amount of spikelets and bunch stalks, a source with the contamination, are carried to the presses.

Strict quality control was adhered to in maintaining product quality, all the time conscious that it is a food industry. Quality parameters like FFA and DOBI values were analysed and monitored closely throughout the day. It was thought to be a crime to blend or dilute poor quality oil with good oil to pass off the average value.

The estate-based plantation companies took great pride in producing mainly Special Quality (SQ) palm oil, made from high quality fruits and processed within the same day and adhering to established processing quality standards. The free fatty acid content was closely monitored as an indicator of the quality. Crude palm oil was then exclusively exported to Europe.

Over the years since the 1980s, palm oil for European consumption is still mainly supplied by estate-based plantation companies who have the marketing contacts and are generally stricter with quality control. Palm oil from government-related and private independent mills tends to be supplied to other markets and for biodiesel production.

New trends have emerged in the milling industry, especially at the private independent mills receiving FFBs from smallholders where palm oil is regarded simply as a commodity / product and little heed paid to the fact that it is destined for human consumption. There is little or no sanitation regulation in the palm oil industry for effective food safety initiative in the industry. Poor sanitation practices can be witnessed almost everywhere from the plantations to the mills. There will continue to be contaminants linked to palm oil produced under unsanitary conditions. The most high-profile example is the issue of 3-MCPD, which was raised by EU regulators since 2006.

There is the “human factor” where given the departure of expatriate management in the local palm oil industry, efforts to replace the loss in knowledge regarding sanitation regulations was not established. One wonders if industry regulators themselves are conscious of food safety issues in the palm oil industry. This is because Government food safety regulations at best are general in nature, not addressing the palm oil industry issues, and thus the relevant regulations remain in drawers and shelves.

Current field practices allow harvested fresh fruits bunches along with large quantities of debris and soil contamination to arrive at the mill. Plantations in these sectors are solely tended to by smallholders who are not educated on good plantation practices. Fruit harvesting and handling practices are haphazard. Fresh fruit bunches arrive late to the mills and are inconsistent in quality.

Many mills recycle oil decanted from the steriliser condensate into production oil process, oblivious to the fact that it contaminates the production oil with contaminates picked in the fields. Today, hardly any of these mills sells sludge oil.

Similarly, many of these mills resort to pressing the empty fruit bunches and recycling the EFB pressed liquor into the oil production process in the hope of squeezing out additional profit. These residual oils are added to the production oil to improve oil yield, but is a major source of contamination detrimental to the quality of production oil. This practice is most common when using vertical sterilisers that incur high oil losses through steriliser condensate and empty fruit bunches.

In some mill systems, fresh fruit bunches are shredded and heated to high temperature, circa 170 °C to reduce steriliser condensation and further improve oil yield. The high temperature invariably leads to oxidation of oil and formation of 3-MCPD esters at the mills. Lately, a new trend has emerged whereby various chemicals like, water or oil soluble chemicals and enzymes are promoted at trade exhibitions for addition to either the process steam or the fruit pulp mass to reduce free fatty acid levels or improve oil yield at the mill effecting oil quality. Maximising profits at any cost and by any means appear to have overtaken food safety considerations.

Oil recovery from clarification sludge and pressed mesocarp fibre (using hexane solvent extraction) and added to production oil is another suspect of contamination.

All these process changes have introduced the hazardous waste contaminants to the production oil and seem to be the major cause of the problem.

To the extent that even established universal practices in food industries are deviated, for example, using saline water for processing in certain geographical locations, using mineral oils and grease for lubrication contaminating product palm oil, and using non-food grade boiler water treatment chemicals. All these poor practices compound the contamination of palm oil with delirious substances.

The use of palm oil as a feed stock for biodiesel production has further contributed to diversion of attention and caused a negative effect on the consciousness. This new business opportunity inadvertently facilitated slackness of being mindful of the need for stringency of the final food product quality. National initiatives like Waste to Wealth, Zero Waste and Key Performance Index have been misconstrued in the palm oil industry in Malaysia to the detriment of food safety.

Palm oil milling industry is in a closet

Another factor emerging is the shroud of secrecy prevailing in the milling industry. Little dialogue takes place among the milling industry personnel, which is evidenced, for example, by the absence of any user discussion group. Every company keeps their knowhow as a secret because of the copycat culture of the industry personnel. The lack of transparency has given the opportunity for the industry to escape public scrutiny of food safety performance.

The industry does not appreciate intellectual property, which severely discourages innovation.

These conditions are inadvertently brought about by the regulators not wanting or being reluctant to ‘impose’ any performance or quality thresholds, adopting instead a laissez-faire approach, citing that world trend is to move towards de-regulation. Thus the whole situation is left entirely to business-to-business market interactions among the millers, traders and suppliers.

Palm oil industry players whether from the plantations or the mills or the refineries appear oblivious of global trends and threats outside their daily work, for example, few have heard of food safety, sustainability or climate change issues, except for a few in their sustainability department.

palm oil margarine

Most Malaysian consumers are neither aware nor much concerned where their food comes from, and do not lie awake worrying about food security. This applies even in India, for example, the Dabbawala community in Bombay to whom palm oil is promoted. They expect the producers and retailers will do right. Rightly so. No one visualises Nutella, margarine or cookies with a side-order of contaminants with their meals, let alone cancer-causing contaminants. With government-related and private independent mills producing palm oil for local consumption, prudent consumers should begin to enquire the levels of contaminants in their food.

Remedial Measures

While Malaysian industry leaders keep echoing that palm oil certification should be market-driven, Malaysia has yet to reach the stage of Ethical Consumerism for self regulation. And given the present mindset of the industry it appears one cannot expect the industry to adopt desired food safety behaviours and standards any time soon on their own.

The single certification scheme for palm oil imported into Europe proposed by the European Union (EU) may just provide the impetus for the food safety performance specifications to be adopted, albeit grudgingly, to protect public safety as regards palm oil. But the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification scheme, if it can implement the required performance levels may be a beacon of hope for food safety to Malaysian consumers.

The “human factor” whereby predominantly the present management regarding the palm oil simply as a commodity / product and not being conscious of the fact that it is destined for human consumption is the major cause of the predicament the industry has been plunged into a condition of despair.

A risk resilient business culture and best practice behaviours start at the top.

Climate Change Oil Palm

Palm Oil Sustainability: An Inconvenient Truth

Of late there has been much reporting in the media questioning the sustainability of Malaysian palm oil production turning it into the whipping boy of Europe and the US. This article analyses the chronological events leading up to this state of affairs to examine if the backlash is indeed unfair and if there is a way forward to get past this impasse.

Granted, we have much to thank the palm oil industry. It has contributed greatly to the nation’s GDP and reduced the poverty rate in Malaysia.

However, we often read that the success of the industry did not come without a price:

Today, we are so successful but we went through so many challenges. “Because of the success of our palm oil, countries that produce other vegetable oils attacked us …
“Because we are so competitive, that’s why they are always targeting palm oil …

Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong, Minister, Plantation Industries and Commodities, Malaysia

As may be expected, the palm oil industry’s potential adverse impact on environment and climate change will strike anyone knowledgeable out there who is concerned about the fact that as palm oil production was being scaled up, simultaneously, rainforests were being displaced on a massive magnitude. Further, there are growing concerns about food safety among European and American households who as consumers have a heightened awareness about such issues.

When did the attacks start and why are they continuing?

Renewable Energy

Réorganiser les moulins à huile de palme dans les centres d’efficacité énergétique

Moulins à huile de palme peuvent libérer les énergies renouvelables à des niveaux d’efficacité énergétique extrêmement élevés découlant des caractéristiques uniques de leurs paramètres de fonctionnement.

Moulins à huile de palme sont dans une position enviable pour exploiter des quantités accrues d’énergie renouvelable à des rendements très élevés, dont le potentiel reste largement inexploité.

À l’heure actuelle, les usines d’huile de palme ont tendance à se concentrer sur les opérations de fraisage. Ils sont principalement concernés par l’activité de base tournant autour du traitement des grappes de fruits frais (FFB) et les taux d’extraction du pétrole. Cependant, une nouvelle hypothèse envisage les usines fonctionnant comme des centres d’énergie renouvelable.

La majeure partie de la masse FFB du champ transporté à l’usine de traitement est déchargé en tant que résidu de biomasse. De ce résidu, la teneur en énergie des fibres de mésocarpe et de palmiste coquilles sont utilisées de manière inefficace pour fournir les besoins énergétiques de l’usine. En fait, les moulins à huile de palme peuvent libérer l’énergie renouvelable à des niveaux extrêmement élevés d’efficacité énergétique découlant des caractéristiques uniques de leurs paramètres de fonctionnement.

Oil Palm

The Air-Void, a ‘drop-in-place’ retrofit solution for air-free sterilisation

Inefficient air removal – the culprit.

Steam management and boiler operational issues at palm oil mills continue to remain problematic and have yet to be satisfactorily resolved. The root cause can be traced to the inefficient method of air removal at the steriliser station.

Inefficient usage of process steam arising from using outdated and inefficient methods to evacuate residual air in the steriliser vessels is the main cause of unrelenting problems at palm oil mills, particularly those affecting boiler operation – currently widespread at palm oil mills.

The Air-Void® has been created specifically to solve the above-mentioned problem.

Oil Palm

New Technological Innovation to Drive Efficiency, Creativity and Profitability at Palm Oil Mills

The Dream Mill

Can life for palm oil mill Managers and Engineers be (ever) made ‘easy’? Actually, yes. With a solution that is both easy and simple. Just picture this… managers and engineers focusing on mill processes and production matters rather than tending to persistent mill utility issues, thereby enriching their daily working life and enhancing the core business of their company.

Today, technological innovation has given a boost to palm oil mill operations. New technologies are available to re-engineer the design of existing palm oil extraction processes to achieve the above.