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Choosing between oil palm and durian trees

Oil palm is still the most efficient oil crop in the world in terms of yield per hectare. Yet, as smallholders contemplate the overdue replanting of old trees, some oil palm estates may well become Musang King durian plantations as this particular species of durian is currently garnering astronomical prices in China.

Like the oil palm -which replaced rubber trees as the dominant crop in Malaysia- helped alleviate poverty among many smallholders, the Musang King holds the promise of new wealth.

For farmers, one hectare of Musang King trees can yield RM155,250 a year (€32,400), which is nearly nine times the RM17,500 (€3,650) harvest from a hectare of oil palm. Minister of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry, Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek, told reporters as much on March 11 after planting one of 600 Musang King trees on a 6 hectares pioneer plot.

“Many small growers are now talking about it. In fact, a large plantation in north Johor intends to plant 10 ha of durian of different species. Well, everyone is betting on continuous demand from China. But is it economically sustainable if supply increases?” oil palm industry veteran M. R. Chandran told The Edge.

“The major risk factors I anticipate here is that if everyone jumps on the bandwagon and switches to durians on a large scale, is there sufficient availability of high-yielding hybrid varieties?” Chandran thinks back to the 1970s and 1980s, when oil palm cultivation expanded rapidly in Malaysia. Many oil palm smallholders only found out 36 months after planting that the material they had sourced was contaminated and was not the high-yielding hybrid they thought they had purchased.

However, he thinks durian trees -which are productive for more years than palm oil trees if they are properly cared for- provide an alternative for Malaysian planters looking at replanting old palm trees. “The hilly areas with above 20° slopes, for instance, can be more suitable for durian versus oil palm.”

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