Biking oil palm biomass waste back into the soil can improve soil health, research study states
  • According to a recent study, Indonesian oil palm farmers can enhance soil health and reduce their reliance on fertiliser by reintroducing waste biomass to the soil.
  • Biomass rich in silicon, a vital component of healthy oil palm plantations, includes pruned palm leaves and fruit lots that have already been grated for their oil.
  • Big palm oil companies already engage in some form of biomass riding, but smallholder farmers are missing out on the benefits due to the considerable cost and time involved.
  • In Indonesia, there are 15 million hectares of oil palm plantations, and since harvests take place twice a week, a significant amount of biomass is eliminated, which results in silicon loss.

In order to maintain healthy soil, a recent study recommends returning oil palm biomass to planting places, namely by replenishing the soil with silicon.

Researchers from Germany’s University of Göttingen, Indonesia’s Tadulako University, and the Bogor Institute of Agriculture published the study in April. The research study forms a component of researchers’ examinations into the impact of landscape change on biodiversity, communities, and people under the long-term research study partnership task known as EFForTS (Ecological and Socioeconomic Functions of Tropical Forests Transformation System).

Few studies have examined the properties of soil minerals over the harvesting period, which for oil palm trees lasts about 25 years, despite the fact that prior studies have examined carbon leakage from the centre of oil palm farms. Aiyen Tjoa, a soil scientist at Tadulako University and co-author of the research report, tells Mongabay that “few people have an interest in this field.”

Numerous elements can be used to determine the health of the soil, but silicon—famous for being used in high-tech devices—caught Aiyen’s eye. Although silicon is the second-most abundant element in the crust of the Earth, there is a limited amount that is readily available for plants to absorb, and its cycling in natural ecosystems depends heavily on the function of organisms. In order to strengthen their cell walls and make them more resistant to diseases, plants need silicon. According to Aiyen, silicon is necessary for the oil palm to endure the effects of a dry spell.

Recently planted oil palm plantation
Oil palm plantation in Aceh, Indonesia, recently planted. In order to maintain soil health, the current research study suggests returning oil palm biomass to planting places, namely by replenishing the soil with silicon. Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay provided the photo.

The research study claims that oil palm accumulates significant amounts of silicon throughout the entire plant. A single tree may contain 4-5 kg (9–11 lbs) of silicon, with the leaves having the highest concentration. According to the research study, pruned oil palm leaves may yield up to 131 kg of silicon per hectare (117 pounds per acre) each year. The fruits of the oil palm contain a sizable amount of silicon as well. In reality, though, this potential accumulation is stopped when the fruits are gathered and taken to the mill to be turned into palm oil.

According to figures from the farming ministry, approximately 2.8 million hectares (6.9 million acres) of smallholder oil palms in Indonesia are close to the end of their productive lives. This suggests that the trees may be quickly replanted, which would result in the loss of a significant amount of silicon and have detrimental effects on the health of the soil.

For this reason, Aiyen proposes that the empty fruit lots be returned to the plantation from which they were gathered once the fruit is processed into unrefined palm oil. She also suggests that woodchips be made from the oil palm biomass produced as part of the government’s nationwide replanting programme and placed in the plantation locations to improve the soil for subsequent planting. Aiyen claims that both actions are now being carried out by plantation businesses, both privately and publicly owned, but not by smallholders, who are said to account for 40% of the nation’s total palm oil production.

Mustangin, a smallholder farmer in South Sumatra province’s Ogan Komering Ilir district, claims he is aware that abandoned fruit lots can serve as natural fertiliser, but that he can only employ the strategy when he has enough money to cover transportation costs because palm oil mills can be located far from the farm. He told Mongabay, “I need to split the cost with other growers. “Therefore, everything is dependent on our financial situation.”

The federal government has really adopted the cracking strategy since it offered a zero-burning policy for its replanting project for smallholders. For each farmer who wants to transplant their oil palms under this nationwide programme, the federal government provides 30 million rupiah ($2,000) each hectare, or roughly $800 per acre. City governments often provide technical assistance to farmers, such as breaking technique following field cleansing. Due to obstacles like the requirement of land ownership certification, which many Indonesians lack, not every farmer may obtain this kind of support. According to University of Göttingen researcher Britta Greenshields, “This practise has actually not yet been extensively utilised and numerous plantations are on the verge of being replanted in the next years” at least in Sumatra’s Jambi region, where the research was conducted.

Soil fertilization procedure in an oil palm plantation.
Soil fertilization procedure in an oil palm plantation. Image by Cooke Vieira/CIFOR by means of Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

According to Iput Pradiko, a soil researcher at the Indonesian Oil Palm Research Institute in Medan, North Sumatra, who was not involved with the research study, there is also a pattern of using oil palm stems and leaves as a source of income. The palm oil industry association, GAPKI, has suggested that empty oil palm fruit lots can be used to produce bioethanol. Asian Agri, a major producer of palm oil, has helped women in the Riau province make crafts out of oil palm leaves. According to Iput, making brooms out of oil palm leaves has become popular in the region of North Sumatra. He further notes that oil palm kernels have been shipped to Japan in place of coal for the generation of electrical energy.

Although this practise has immediate benefits, according to Aiyen, all parties involved in the oil palm industry must also consider the long-term effects. Harvests typically take place twice a week on the 15 million hectares (37 million acres) of oil palm plantations in Indonesia. That translates into a significant amount of biomass elimination. “Silicone loss would be higher when there is a significant biomass elimination from the plantation website,” says Aiyen. And that would indicate that silica fertiliser would be necessary in the future. Given the high price of fertiliser, Mustangin has the same problem as Aiyen. He asks, “Please don’t make it too expensive and difficult to obtain.”

Iput agrees that the federal government needs to focus more on oil palm biomass and supports Aiyen’s idea to reintroduce the biomass to the soil to improve soil health. Iput says that “whatever is taken from the soil, it should be returned as much as possible.”

After harvest, the oil palm fruit are separated (banner image). Deanna Ramsay/CIFOR provided the photo through Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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Schwarz, F., Hughes, H. J., Tjoa, A., Kotowska, M., Greenshields, B., von der Lühe, B.,… Sauer, D. (2023). similar to an oil-palm Si is stored, returned to the soil, and lost at harvest in small-scale oil palm plantations on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.doi:10.5194/bg-20-1259-2023. Biogeosciences20(7), 1259–1276.

Agriculture, agrochemicals, agroecology, fertilisers, industrial agriculture, plantations that produce palm oil, pollution, recycling, sustainability, and waste

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