As demand for palm oil continues to grow, researchers have begun to use sophisticated modelling software to find new ways to improve yields and reduce the environmental impacts of oil palm production.
"Demand for the product continues to grow, and the industry is expected to keep expanding in the foreseeable future,” said co-author Dr Paul Nelson of James Cook University (JCU). "At the same time, there is significant concern about the industry's environmental impacts, with many purchasers wanting only certified sustainable palm oil.”
"Given that this is one of the most important industries in the tropics, our aim is to contribute to a research-based approach to its management,” se said. “Growers need information that will help them make decisions that are good for both productivity and the environment."
Published in the journal Environmental Modeling & Software, the team of Australian scientists developed the model for oil palm cultivation, using the internationally recognized APSIM (Agricultural Production Systems Simulator) framework. The model is called APSIM Oil Palm.
"APSIM is the gold standard for simulating crop systems," Nelson said. "It enables the simulation of systems that cover a range of plant, animal, soil, climate and management interactions.”
"By applying APSIM Oil Palm, producers will be able to evaluate effects of their soil type, climate and management on their water balance, nutrient balance, soil organic matter and greenhouse gas emissions."
Nelson noted that agricultural systems modelling was often used in sustainability studies, along with field measurements – but noted that the ‘valuable tool’ has not previously been available to oil palm growers.
"APSIM Oil Palm can be used in on-farm decision making and in assessing risk, yield forecasts and government policy, as well as providing a guide to research and education."
"Like any computer modelling exercise the outcome depends on good quality data, which has previously been a problem for many oil palm growing areas,” Nelson suggested.
"This is a highly detailed model which involved simulating the growth of oil palm fronds, stems, roots and fruit bunches, and accounting for variations in soil, light, rainfall and temperature.”
To generate the model, the team used data from large databases on soil and climate information from three sites in Papua New Guinea.
Earlier this month the model's developers, including Nelson, ran a workshop in Jakarta, Indonesia, to train 20 scientists from six countries in using the model.
It is hoped that the participants (12 from Indonesia, three from France, two from Colombia and one each from Liberia, Malaysia and Netherlands) will use and further develop the model to help improve sustainable production of this important crop, said the team.
Source: Environmental Modeling & Software
Volume 62, December 2014, Pages 411–419, doi: 10.1016/j.envsoft.2014.06.021
“Development of an oil palm cropping systems model: Lessons learned and future directions”
Authors: Neil I. Huth