Oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is an efficient supplier of oil for fuel, non-food products and food products (Yee et al., 2009). Indonesia is producing over 50% of the worldwide supply, from a total area of over 8.1 million hectare in 2013. Up to 43% of the area under palm oil production in Indonesia is managed by smallholders with farms of <50 ha. Small local farmers can profit from oil palm as a high-return cash crop (Feintrenie et al., 2010), and are well aware of the possibilities for economic development that palm oil production offers (Rist et al., 2010). Especially more remote communities often have few other opportunities for generating cash income, which makes palm oil all the more attractive.
Improving yields is a key aspect of sustainability, as higher yields per hectare improve land use efficiency and decrease the need for expansion into pristine natural areas to meet demands (Balmford et al., 2005). However, in the last years oil palm yields have stagnated or declined, in the face of an increasing demand of oil palm for food and biofuel. Worldwide demand for palm oil is expected to triple by 2050, requiring an additional area of 12-19 Mha of plantations (Corley, 2009). The achievable yield is around 7 t/ha but a large ‘yield gap’ exists, with yields generally well below 4 t/ha. Smallholder oil palm farmers in Indonesia generally underperform in terms of yield, due to a range of reasons including lack of access to finance, lack of good quality seeds and inputs, poor drainage or soils, and a lack of knowledge and experience (Molenaar et al., 2013). This underperformance threatens the profitability of smallholder palm oil production and reduces the sustainability of the oil palm sector as a whole.
My PhD project aims at assessing the size of the yield gap in smallholder plantations and at understanding the way in which smallholders can increase their yield in a step-wise fashion; the physiological effect of improved management (especially fertilisation); and the economic aspects of yield improvement. The research project has the following objectives:
- To determine the attainable yield in mature smallholder plantations with a history of sub-optimal management
- To understand the physiological response of mature oil palm to improved management and fertilisation over time, in terms of above-ground vegetative growth and bunch production
- To analyse the input and labour requirements for BMP implementation
- To determine which are best-fit BMPs for intensification in smallholder plantations