Q: Does oil palm lead to a depletion of groundwater resources in areas it is cultivated?

A: No. The effect of oil palm on groundwater resources isn’t significantly different from that of rubber. While it is fact that a single oil palm tree consumes about 249 litres of water per day, against 63 litres by a rubber tree, the consumption of water per hectare of oil palm is only slightly higher than that of a hectare of rubber because fewer oil palms are planted per hectare. A hectare of rubber requires 31,500 litres of water per day while a hectare of oil palm requires 34,680 litres.

Moreover, given that oil palm is only cultivated in regions where annual rainfall averages 3,500 mm, and the crop’s water requirement is 1,300 mm per annum, there is no basis for the concern that oil palm cultivation can lead to a deficit in water resources.

Oil palm cultivation in the Galle District commenced about 50 years ago. However, there have been no reports to date of water shortages due to Oil palm.

Q: Will Oil Palm result in a decrease in the cultivation of traditional crops such as rubber?

A: No. The government has formulated strict guidelines for the palm oil industry. These guidelines stipulate that up to 20,000 hectares of land may be cultivated with oil palm. This area is less than 3% of the total land extent under plantation crops. We have 202,000 hectares of land under tea, 136,000 under rubber and 440,000 under coconut. Plantation companies and the national economy need a mix of these crops to be able to weather fluctuations in commodity prices. Therefore, there is no question of oil palm replacing any of the traditional crops. Oil palm has been cultivated in Sri Lanka for nearly 50 years, and to date, the area under oil palm is only 10,000 hectares, a fraction of the extent under other crops.

Q: Will the cultivation of oil palm result in a decrease in the extents under forest cover?

A: No. In Sri Lanka, the government has issued strict guidelines on the lands that can be cultivated with oil palm. Oil palm may only be cultivated on land that is already under cultivation and that too in areas where rubber or coconut cultivation is no longer viable, after several cycles of the same crop. Accordingly, plantation companies have only replaced some unproductive crops in elevations below 300m of the country with oil palm, and all cultivated areas are in the wet zone. All companies are required to strictly adhere to legal prohibitions on the clearing of existing natural forests.

Oil palm has also been identified as a viable alternative crop for land on which traditional crops do not thrive anymore, especially on obsolete coconut plantations in which crops have been devastated by disease. Therefore, oil palm is cultivated only on abandoned plantation land deemed unfit to grow rubber, tea and coconut. Oil palm cultivation has been recognised as an ideal strategy to rotate crops, and in the process maintain productivity and profitability.

Q: Will oil palm cultivation lead to serious environmental issues as it requires high levels of chemical fertiliser?

A: No. Oil palm does require more fertiliser than rubber, but this can be reduced with the use of soil and foliar based site specific fertilisers. Sri Lankan oil palm is not affected by fungal disease as such pest issues and their control measures are similar to those of coconut.

Furthermore, the solid waste from palm oil manufacturing factories is used as organic manure and as fuel to generate renewable energy; this leads to palm oil factories being self-sufficient in energy. This is an advantage.

The effluent that is generated as a result of palm oil production is 90-95% chemical-free water, which is easily treated.

Instead of adversely affecting the environment, oil palm benefits the environment by removing greenhouse gasses, conserving soil and soil moisture, and by contributing to the natural water cycle when cultivated according to Good Agricultural Practices and the stipulated regulations.

Q: Does oil palm cultivation lead to an increase in the reptile population?

A: No. In Nakiadeniya, where oil palm has been cultivated for the past 50 years, there has been no increase in the population of reptiles. Further, from records available on this estate, it is apparent that the number of serpent attacks on workers is similar to that of estates with other crops.

Q: Does oil palm cultivation cause soil erosion and landslides?

A: No. Soil erosion and landslides are not crop-related but soil management related. In any event, oil palm is only planted on terrain that has a gradient of less than 23 degrees, as advocated by the Coconut Research Institute (CRI). On steep land it is mandatory to practice appropriate soil conservation techniques such as contour planting, establishment of contour and main drains, stone terracing, planting ground covers, mulching, introducing live hedges and undertaking stream bank protection in oil palm plantations. It is also recommended to plant oil palm in individual platforms whenever and as much as possible. The base of the platform should be sloping against the gradient of the land. This is called a reverse slope. When these guidelines are followed, there will be no contribution to landslides.

Q: Given the opposition to oil palm, does Sri Lanka really need to cultivate this crop?

A: Yes. Firstly, the opposition to oil palm is not based on facts relevant to Sri Lanka. Deforestation, soil degradation, negative impacts on water sources and biodiversity are evident in countries where natural forests are felled to plant oil palm. Other trivial claims are as a result of a campaign of misinformation by persons with vested interests. As for the importance of oil palm, 50% of the packaged products on sale at any supermarket use palm oil, so the demand is huge. Sri Lanka’s present annual edible oil requirement is 160,000 MT. The country produces a total of just 44,000 MT of coconut oil and 18,000 MT of palm oil as of now, leaving a deficit of 98,000 MT in its edible oil requirement. Per capita consumption of edible oil in Sri Lanka is 10.4kgs per annum.

In total, Sri Lanka imported 230,000 MT of oils and fats in 2017, at a cost of Rs 29 billion for consumption as well as for industrial and other purposes. Locally produced palm oil can therefore play a significant role in import substitution.

When compared with Sri Lanka’s other plantation crops, oil palm has easily the lowest Cost of Production (COP) at just Rs 15 per kilogram of fresh fruit bunches, with a net sale average (NSA) of Rs. 45 per kg. Coconut has a NSA and a COP of Rs. 35 and Rs. 15 per nut respectively. However, coconut produces a yield per hectare of only 7,000 nuts, whilst Oil Palm produces 18,000 kg per hectare per annum.

Oil palm is by far Sri Lanka’s most profitable crop. Coconut generates Rs 140,000 per hectare per annum, while tea and rubber generate Rs 45,000 and Rs 50,000 respectively, whereas oil palm generates Rs. 514,000 per hectare per annum.

Oil palm also far outstrips any of its competitors, producing 70.13 million MT or 35.4% of the total global requirement for vegetable oil with an efficiency of 3.74 MT per hectare per annum which is almost ten times higher than the efficiency or productivity of most of the rest of the crops cultivated for the purpose. If we compare the oil production efficiency of oil palm with that of coconut, about four hectares of coconut land is needed to produce the same quantity of vegetable oil produced by just one hectare of oil palm.