You've seen the pictures. Aerial shots of thousands of acres of precious rainforest being slashed and burned to make way for more palm production. Smoke curling up in the sky over Indonesia, making it one of the world's largest greenhouse gas emitters (ClimateWire, June 30).

Hoping to stop this, some countries have banned the further conversion of forestland into palm oil plantations, but enforcement has been nearly impossible (Greenwire, April 28).

So what is to be done? Enter Harrison Ford, best known as the enduring superhero Indiana Jones. Footage of the veteran actor witnessing firsthand the devastating effect the booming palm industry has had on Indonesia's rapidly declining rainforests recently aired on Showtime's documentary "Years of Living Dangerously" and started a gasp of dismay heard round the world.

According to Agence France-Presse, Ford came to see forest devastation in a national park in Sumatra and then angrily confronted Indonesia's forestry minister, Zulkifli Hasan, with hostile questions. "His emotions were running very high," the minister said afterward. Ford, he added, "wanted violators to be caught the same day."

Hasan said he wasn't given the chance to explain the challenges of catching people who break the law in Indonesia's rainforests.

Suddenly the contention over palm oil had reached an international frenzy, which is probably good because the rainforests need all the help they can get.

Managed properly, palm oil can be an extremely valuable and flexible crop. Palm is one of the few plants in the world that can produce two types of oil -- kernel oil, used in everything from cosmetics to soap, and edible oil from the palm fruit. But poor management and excess farming have raised many additional environmental concerns (ClimateWire, July 3), creating a standoff among environmental groups, farmers and businesses.

Adam Harrison, senior policy officer of food and agriculture for World Wildlife Fund Scotland, said natural facts of how palm is grown make it a difficult crop to balance environmentally.

"Palm presents a special problem for conservation efforts," Harrison said. "Naturally palm grows in low-laying tropical area, which is most often valuable and protected land."

A burnt out tree stands where an entire forest used to in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. The land has been destroyed by poor farming practices, illegal logging and fires, resulting in significant greenhouse gas emissions.
Credit: Josh Estey for AusAID via Wikimedia Commons

A market in desperate need of a rescuer
Raviga Sambanthamurthi, director of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board's Advanced Biotechnology and Breeding Centre, said the crop could use a rescuer: "Almost no crop outproduces palm.

"We will continue to need more food, oil and fibers in the future, and we can't run away from it," Sambanthamurthi added. "All of these things can be provided by the palm industry, and there are so many ways we can improve it."

This week Sambanthamurthi and Robert Martienssen, scientific co-founder of a small U.S. biotechnology consultant group called Orion Genomics, released the second series of findings from a nearly four-decade-long project designed to breed easier-to-manage palms, increasing the yield of existing crops and decreasing the need for more land development.

The team has been working with countries around the globe to obtain samples of other varieties of palms, looking for the components to construct the ideal crop. Its most recent discovery, the VIR gene, will help farmers better identify when palm fruit is at optimum ripeness, decreasing waste and increasing farmer profits.

In the process, the team hopes to help ensure the future of the industry worldwide by improving the efficiency and fairness of the palm industry, helping all parties involved reach a middle, sustainable ground.

"Farmers have known of the palm genes we were looking for for hundreds of years, if not longer, and have been continuously trying to create hybrids that would hold some of these traits they wanted, but unsuccessfully," Martienssen said.

Sambanthamurthi said that commercially available crop materials were so genetically limited, they wouldn't likely offer new genetic solutions. "We knew we needed different samples to work with and also knew these traits already existed out there." This, Sambanthamurthi said, sparked an idea in her colleagues. "We had the idea to go back to the wild to find them."

Hunting for the 'Goldilocks gene'
Amassing and analyzing one of the world's largest collections of palm genes, the team first found the SHELL gene, which Martienssen describes as the "Goldilocks gene" of palms because it allows the ideal shell-to-fruit ratio in palms, increasing the oil content as much as 30 percent.

Sorting through each sample's individual genes, with their accompanying roughly 2 billion base pairs, was seemingly impossible, Martienssen said, but when they hit a match, it was similar to "finding two flagpoles at the North Pole; once you find them, you're pretty certain you've got what you were looking for."

The VIR gene found this year, which Martienssen calls the "color gene," causes the palm fruit to undergo a drastic color change from green to bright orange when ripe, compared with conventional palm fruit, which retains a dark purple color that only deepens as the fruit ripens.

As Sambanthamurthi describes it, the traditional purple fruit leaves farmers in a guessing game as they gaze up at the fruits, nestled deep in their parent trees sometimes more than 60 feet high, waiting for them to reach ideal ripeness.

Because it is so hard to distinguish a ripe palm from an unripe one, usually farmers wait for a few fruit from a bunch to drop to the forest floor, indicating the bunch it fell from is ripe, but this is a method wrought with problems. Not every fruit in the bunch or in the same tree may be at ideal ripeness, meaning some are harvested too early or too late, both decreasing the oil content.

"Having this kind of a key indicator like color change will make it much easier for farmers to recognize this exact crossover time," Martienssen said, letting them harvest more ripe palm fruit with subsequently higher oil content.

"Anything that increases the yield of palms we support," Harrison said. "Because it results in less land needed for palm growth."

But unlike the SHELL gene, which farmers had been experimenting with previously, the VIR gene has a much stranger story. Though a dominant trait in palms, somehow it had been nearly lost from most populations.

There are three options when it comes to genetic combinations for a trait. One can be homozygous, containing two of the same gene coding for the same trait, or heterozygous, holding two different gene codings for the same trait. In the second scenario, the two different genes must compete for influence over the trait, meaning one has to give in.

The gene that wins out, masking the effect of its partner, is called the dominant gene while its counterpart is recessive. This means any palm bred with the green palm should, in effect, be a green palm, so just what caused such a ruckus in its genetic evolution?

The mysterious case of the green palm
"From the looks of how the green palm moved, it must have been prized heavily or traded," Martienssen said. "Otherwise there's no real explanation how the fruit made it from, say, western Africa to central regions, or traveled so extensively throughout the country."

Speculation is that the green palms were seen to have mystic or healing powers, or were set aside for sacrifices and ceremonies, segregating out the influence and eventually lineage of the green palm.

The dominance of the gene in this case actually made it much easier to remove from the population in the past, but now will greatly speed up its reintroduction.

"The results will be instant," Martienssen said. "Sure, this will also rely on farmers perpetuating the green palms and, of course, selecting for them instead of against, but the science is fairly simple."

Sambanthamurthi said her team has developed kits to test for the presence of the SHELL gene already and hopes to soon produce one for the VIR gene, which it offers for a small fee to local farmers. This will open up access to farmers who are otherwise much in the dark about what varieties they are buying or planting, creating less-than-optimum yields and profits.

"Currently many farmers get seeds without knowing the variety at all," Sambanthamurthi said. "They can be easily tricked by seed dealers or mistakenly plant a nonideal variety, but must wait around six years to find out what precisely they planted."

Sambanthamurthi said simple tests like leaf punches that look for the genes can be conducted on plants only a few weeks old, so farmers can know exactly what type of palm they have before devoting more resources to the crop.

Both of these advances will allow more control over both the planting and harvesting process, Martienssen and Sambanthamurthi said, something they hope will decrease the amount of waste and get farmers the highest prices possible for their goods.

Harrison said discoveries like the VIR and SHELL genes could help the palm industry strike a better balance between growers and consumers, because they address what he sees as the elementary roadblock to proper palm industry management.

"The industry doesn't need to expand," he said, echoing Sambanthamurthi, "and it knows that. It just needs to shift practices and recognize the people still at the heart of this problem."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500

More on Palm Oil:
Ban on Trans Fats Could Accelerate Deforestation
Stop Burning Rain Forests for Palm Oil
Palm Oil Set to Grow Indonesia's Climate Changing Emissions
Is Harvesting Palm Oil Destroying the Rainforests?
Proposed Palm Oil Industry (1880 - archive access required)