Palm oil is produced by pressing the flesh and kernel of the fruit of the oil palm, a tropical plant originating in West Africa. People in the region may have consumed the reddish oil even in prehistoric times. Archaeologists have found evidence of palm oil in 3,000-year-old tombs in Egypt, according to the Cambridge World History of Food, indicating long-distance trade in the commodity. It was colonialism and the industrial revolution that led to widespread use of palm oil in the global west, as an important raw material in the making of soap, margarine, candles and lubricants. Introduced to other tropical regions, including Central Africa, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands and South America, oil palm has become one of the world’s most important oil crops.
Today, the major producers are Indonesia and Malaysia, which together produce 80% of the world’s palm oil. China relies entirely on imports – about 7 million tonnes annually in recent years, at a cost of over US$4 billion. It is the world’s second largest importer of the commodity, after India. What many don’t know is that over the past few decades the Chinese government has made multiple attempts to set up oil palm plantations, as part of efforts to produce more edible oils locally, and to manufacture biofuels. More recently, in Hainan, a team of scientists has, after over two decades of work, bred oil palm varieties suitable for growing in China, and now it hopes to popularise commercial plantations.
With China reliant on imports for 80% of its edible oils and fats, and the Communist Party’s central rural work conference calling in late 2021 for more planting of soy and other oil crops, will the country restart domestic palm oil production?
Rises and falls
The first recorded planting of oil palms in China was on a small-scale in 1926, by a group of overseas Chinese who had imported them as an oil crop from Southeast Asia to places such as Hainan, on the northern edge of the tropics.
Hainan is considered to have seen two rounds of large-scale oil palm planting. The first was in the 1950s and 1960s, during a national shortage of edible oils. The state spent 100 million yuan on importing oil palms and planting them in places including Yunnan, comparable to the annual GDP of some small cities in the late 1950s. By 1965, 43,300 hectares had been planted, 41,300 hectares of which were in Hainan.
The palms imported back then were unimproved low-yield varieties with thick-shelled fruit, known as dura, said Zeng Xianhai, head of the palm oil development group at the Rubber Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Tropical Agricultural Sciences. Add in a lack of farming and management expertise, and production never took off. Between the 1950s and 1980s, each mu (1/15 of a hectare, or 666 metres squared) of land produced only 20 or 30 kg of oil. Today, the major producing nations in Southeast Asia achieve 270 kg per mu.
But, in the late 1970s, China’s household responsibility system came in, giving farmers more say in what they planted. With rubber, pepper and mangoes worth more, oil palm fell out of favour.
The second round of oil palm planting came in the early 1980s, when a Singaporean company partnered with a state-owned farm in Chengmai, Hainan, to plant 2,660 hectares of a more productive variety of oil palm known as tenera, that has fruit with a thinner shell, making it easier to extract the kernel oil. However, production never properly started, due to poor management and the planted area being too small to benefit from economies of scale. Meanwhile, Nanbin Farms, a state-owned company in the Hainan city of Sanya, imported thin-shelled oil palms from Malaysia and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), for new commercial plantings, and to upgrade existing plantations. But the firm halted commercial palm oil production in 1991, due to low profits, and research activity almost ground to a halt.
Zeng Xianhai describes the eight years following the end of Nanbin’s production as a “blank”, as far as palm oil research goes. Since then, oil palms introduced over the decades for their oil have come to be planted only for the sake of greenery and scenery. However, those ornamental trees, and their descendants, have become the foundation of Zeng’s research, as he looks at how oil palms will grow and adapt in China. He’s found the trees growing as far north as Dali in Yunnan, at a latitude of 25 degrees north, flowering and bearing fruit as normal. They have likely spread due to a combination of being grown as ornamentals and natural dispersion, said Zeng.
In 1998, a central government body asked the Chinese Academy of Tropical Agricultural Sciences to restart trials with imported oil palms, to ensure the country’s supply of edible oils. That task fell to Zeng’s teacher, rubber expert Lin Weifu, and others. In 2021, after more than 20 years and the efforts of two generations of researchers, the team – now led by Zeng himself – produced the first oil palm variety able to grow in China and produce more than 200 kg of oil per mu: the “Re-you 6”. They have also bred a range of other varieties with valuable characteristics: cold resistance, high yield, high oleic acid levels, seedless fruit, long fruit stalk and short height, with the latter two making the fruit easier to harvest. In 2017, the team completed China’s first large-scale test planting of oil palm seedlings grown from tissue cultures. Breeding new varieties from cultures is much faster than traditional hybrid breeding, and the seedlings are highly homogenous, allowing for faster propagation.
In a report on the new variety in the Hainan Daily, Zeng said that breeding its own varieties will change the current situation in which China’s palm oil industry is reliant on foreign countries.
Lin Weifu said that, in theory, oil palms can be planted in any of China’s rubber-growing areas. But rubber is a strategic crop, and those plantations cannot be turned over to oil palms. China’s south does not have large expanses of flat land free for planting, but is home to marginal areas such as low-yield forestry, abandoned land and eucalyptus forests which could be used. He thinks up to 1.334 million hectares of oil palms could be planted. For comparison, China has 1.2 million hectares of rubber plantations. Assuming these lands were all planted with Re-you 6, which has a modest yield of 200kg per mu (3 tonnes per hectare), they could together produce a whopping 4 million tonnes of palm oil per year – nearly two-thirds of China’s current palm oil import.
It is worth mentioning that, around the world, marginal land is often rich in biodiversity. But putting this potential drawback to one side, is China ready to start planting oil palms?
Ten years ago, there was plenty of discussion and planning around restarting oil palm planting in China.
In 2009, a proposal from the Hainan branch of the China Democratic League suggested developing the sector there, as it would be “an effective route to resolving both edible oil shortages and energy issues.” The provincial government replied that, first, earlier failures had left farmers and grass-roots cadres unenthusiastic, and second, there was little spare land on the island to use. However, it pointed out that trial plantings were being carried out at a number of locations, as part of a Ministry of Agriculture program.
In a 2010 document on promoting the growing of tropical crops, the State Council called for more introduction and breeding of oil palm varieties and the continuation of trial plantings, to create the conditions for the sector to grow when times were right. In 2011, the Ministry of Agriculture issued a plan for tropical crop development during the 12th Five Year Plan period (2011–2015), saying that by 2015 trial plantings would be completed and a feasible proposal for a Chinese palm oil sector would be published. Also in 2011, a decade-long trial planting project started, with nine trial farms across Hainan, Yunnan and Guangdong provinces established by 2020. The Rubber Research Institute was the technical lead for that project.
In 2015, Hainan attempted to go beyond trial planting and start planting commercially. The provincial government said that by 2020 there would be two county-level centres of palm oil production, but that target was not met.
In 2011, China’s then-president Hu Jintao, speaking at the first Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Meeting of Ministers Responsible for Forestry, called for the potential of forests to be realised, with tree-source edible oils and biofuels to be developed to ensure food and energy security. The Ministry of Forestry pointed out soon after that as oil-producing trees can grow on marginal land, they have strategic value: they don’t compete with other agriculture or reduce production of other foods. Biofuel, meanwhile, can protect the environment and reduce reliance on oil imports, the ministry added.
This led policymakers to look at oil palms as a source of biofuel. In 2012, oil palms were included in the National Energy Administration’s program for biofuel development during the 12th Five Year Plan (FYP) period (2012–17). They were to be planted in unproductive salty, unfertile or sloping areas, along with other non-food biofuel crops. By 2015, plantings were to reach 2 million hectares. In 2013, the National Forestry and Grassland Administration published plans for biofuel development between 2011 and 2020, saying that by 2020 there would be an additional 30,000 hectares of oil palm biofuel plantations, mostly on the coast of the Beibu Gulf and in the mountains of southern Yunnan.
Those plans did not come to fruition either. In 2016, the 13th FYP (2016–2020) for biofuels made no mention of oil palms. It only mentioned using starchy energy crops such as maize and cassava to produce ethanol.
Today, China’s biodiesel sector uses recycled oils from catering and elsewhere as the main raw material, and a system for recycling, reusing and trading waste oils and fats is quickly taking shape. Some waste oils are exported as raw materials, while a small number of firms are using imported palm acid oil, a by-product of palm oil refining, to make biodiesel. However it is manufactured, the bulk of biodiesel manufactured in China is exported, and any use domestically is restricted to trial projects.
So oil palm planting for biodiesel production hasn’t yet happened, and it is not a priority. One senior industry source thinks this is due to the high cost of planting oil palms in China, and a wish to recycle waste.
Robert Hii, a palm oil industry observer and founder of independent website CSPO Watch, also emphasised cost factors. He says that despite the development of oil palm varieties suited to China being reported in English, the Malaysian and Indonesian palm oil sectors aren’t concerned. This is because there is no explanation of how obstacles, particularly labour costs, will be overcome.
“While overseas writers like to describe palm oil as a ‘low-cost’ oil, that’s actually a misunderstanding. It may be more productive by area than soy or rapeseed oil, but it’s very labour intensive, and that’s never been reflected in global prices,” Hii said. He explained that soy and rapeseed can be planted, grown and harvested mechanically, while oil palm farming must be done by hand. The clusters of fruit, weighing over 20 kg, need to be picked and moved manually, and many of the plantation workers he has interviewed suffer from kyphosis – abnormal curvature of the spine – as a result of the hard physical work. The only comparable edible oil crop is the olive, but the extra labour is reflected in the price of olive oil.
The palm oil sector in Southeast Asia has a problematic reliance on cheap labour. According to a 2020 report on fair targets and wages in the sector in Indonesia, published by the Earthworm Foundation, the average picker earns only 120,000 rupiah a day (about 54 yuan, or US$8.50) if they pick their target of 1.2 tonnes of fruit a day. Many do not. Malaysia, meanwhile, relies mainly on Indonesian migrant workers, paid somewhere around the minimum wage: in 2019, that was 1,100 ringgit a month (about 1,675 yuan or US$262), and increased to 1,200 ringgits in 2020. Given the absence of a Chinese palm oil industry, the rubber industry can serve as a point of comparison. Zeng Xianhai told China Dialogue that workers on state-owned rubber plantations in Hainan and Yunnan will earn 3,000–4,000 yuan a month, and 4,000–5,000 on a private plantation.
Zeng and Lin Weifu both agree China is not yet ready for widespread planting of oil palms. The huge presses needed have to be paired with plantations on the 10,000 mu (667 hectare) scale to be profitable. In China, land is worked in smaller parcels, and transferring usage rights is expensive. Establishing those large-scale plantations would be tough.
Lin Weifu explained that the market outlook for the new Re-you 6 variety is still hard to assess: costs can’t be estimated without large-scale pressing, and there is no palm oil pressing sector in China. For now, all they can do is use laboratory tests.
Lin acknowledged there is a dilemma: if they go ahead with planting, the first crop will be harvested in two or three years with no presses to extract the oil. If a company builds the presses, there could be no raw material to feed them. A number of firms have spoken to the research team about cooperating on pressing the oil, but soon lose interest when they realise the amount of investment and planting required. He thinks further expansion will only happen after small-scale production trials, and when the pressing and other infrastructure is in place.
Commenting on cost issues, Zeng Xianhai said that China cannot compete directly on price, but should look to differentiate itself from other producers. And that will require unique varieties. He gives “Re-you 40” as an example: its oil is less than 30% saturated fats and fatty acids, lower than the 50% in ordinary palm oil. That could help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. It’s also a short-growing variety, standing only half as tall as the regular variety when fully grown. That makes picking the fruit much easier. The lack of processing infrastructure has prompted the team to develop varieties which are easier to press. Fruit from the Re-you 40 has no kernel, meaning there is no need to remove it. That means smallholders can use simple oil pressing equipment designed for peanuts to produce crude palm oil.
Zeng says that while China is not ready for large-scale oil palm planting, it can start with small-scale trial production, to acquire the experience, equipment and staff for commercial operations. He thinks the market shouldn’t be the only driving force behind developing domestic production. “We need to think about planting oil palms in terms of the security of edible oil supplies, with China providing only 30% of its own edible oil consumption, tropical oil crops can make a contribution.” He added that palm oil production in China will require financial support via government policies, as well as private capital.
Lin Weifu, meanwhile, wants to see more backing for research. Currently, the only support available is from the Ministry of Agriculture’s Oil Palm Trial Planting Network, for the acquisition, breeding and trial planting of oil palm varieties, rather than for commercialisation.
The outlook for palm oil production in China does not seem bright. However, Zeng Xianhai and other researchers have another aim: helping Chinese firms establish palm oil operations overseas.
The Rubber Research Institute, where Zeng works, has provided tissue-culture seedlings of China-developed varieties to Chinese firms working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Republic of the Congo, and in the Pacific island state of Vanuatu. In the DRC, 10,000 mu (667 hectares) have been planted. In the Republic of the Congo, small-scale trial plantings have recently started. Vanuatu, meanwhile, is the first country to set up a palm oil project funded by Chinese overseas aid. In fact, back in 2005, the institute was working together with the China Machinery Engineering Corporation to send oil palm seeds and planting technology to Vanuatu, which has a climate suitable for palm oil production, but no oil palms. The introduction proved successful with the trees reaching harvestable age in 2014. According to a media report, in 2019 the institute started working with a Chinese firm on commercial plantings, with a plan for 10,000 hectares of oil palms on a “company + farmer” contract farming model.
“The techniques used overseas, particularly for high-yield cultivation, are mature. But we can do better in stress-resistant cultivation. Doing that would give us a comparative advantage when promoting our varieties overseas,” said Lin Weifu.
Since 2010, another Chinese Academy of Tropical Agricultural Sciences body, the Coconut Research Institute, has also been studying oil palms. According to media reports, in August last year the institute signed a research agreement with the Tianjin Julong Group, one of a small number of Chinese firms with an oil palm plantation overseas. The institute will work with Julong’s Indonesian plantation on breeding improved varieties, preventing pests and disease, mechanisation, agricultural information technology, and staff training.
For a long time, the felling of tropical forests and draining of carbon-storing peat bogs has led to palm oil production being identified as the third biggest driver of deforestation worldwide. There are also associated problems with labour and indigenous people’s rights. Those issues have been garnering more attention over the last decade and more, leading to a range of approaches, such as certification, being developed to ensure environmental and social sustainability in the sector. As the world’s second-largest importer of palm oil, China, is starting to look at how it can apply pressure at the consumer-end to encourage greener production.
But as China becomes able to export palm oil technology and help its own firms to work overseas in the sector, it will have to tackle issues of sustainability from the production end, even if it produces none at home. For example, although high-yield technologies do have some sustainability potential as they can help spare forests from conversion into new plantations, monoculture harms biodiversity and means market risks to smallholder growers. Thus, the integration of oil palm into diversified agroforestry systems is becoming an emerging area of research. This could be a direction in which China’s future oil palm development also looks.
By Jiang Yifan