An American start-up is on the brink of saving millions of dollars for companies that grow oil palm in Malaysia — all through the science of DNA.

Orion Genomics, based in St Louis, Missouri, has discovered how to tell during the oil palm tree’s infancy if a seedling – which takes nearly 30 years to grow to become harvest-ready – will yield the right type of fruit.

The oil palm fruit can come in three forms: with a thick shell, a thin shell or with no shell at all. The three forms all give different amounts of palm oil.

Thin-shelled fruits yield 30% more palm oil. But until now, during their three decades of growth, it was unclear which trees would produce that type of fruit. That was a major headache for Malaysia, one of the world’s largest palm oil exporters, as well as a waste of land and water.

Orion has found a way, through examining early-stage samples, to ensure that only thin shell seeds with the maximum amount of palm oil are planted, saving growers huge amounts of time and money.

Orion’s technique allows growers to weed out the bad trees before they take up valuable resources; to increase the yield; and to make plantations more efficient.

The list of products that use palm oil is incredibly long: toothpaste, dish soap, beauty products, soda, crackers, chips, cosmetics, cookies and ice cream. Palm oil alone provides half of the edible vegetable oil sold worldwide.



Orion Genomics President and CEO Nate Lakey (Pix 1) says most Americans use palm oil throughout their entire day without even knowing it.

“A lot of people don’t know what palm oil goes into. There’s a lot of palm oil in daily things. The New York Times wrote once that it touches you all day. When you wake up and brush your teeth, guess what? Then you put on make-up, guess what?” he says.

That means Orion’s discovery has major repercussions.


“[…] only 5% of the world’s oil [crop] lands have oil palm planted on them. But that 5% provides 40% of the world’s oil,” Lakey says. “Already, this tree is crazy productive, and that’s given that 10% will be duds. And we’re increasing the yield.”


 

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