KUALA LUMPUR,Jan 20: Palm oil production in Malaysia is being dealt a double blow from a persistent shortage of workers to harvest the crop and torrential rains that have triggered floods in key growing areas of the world’s No. 2 supplier.
Relentless heavy rain and thunderstorms have led to flash floods in parts of Sabah, Sarawak, Johor, Pahang and Perak – the biggest palm oil-producing states in the country.
While palm trees are typically water-loving and resistant to wet weather, prolonged floods could prevent harvesting – leading to overripe fruit and poor oil quality – and disrupt transport of fruit to mills.
Also deepening output woes is Malaysia’s re-imposition of lockdowns from Jan 13, and a state of emergency that may last until August, which complicates the recruitment of foreign labour that the palm industry is so desperate for.
“Certain states including large oil palm-growing areas have been affected in Johor, Pahang and Perak. Here, crop losses have been unavoidable as many sections of the fields have been under 2ft to 3ft (0.6m to 0.9m) of water for two to three weeks,” said Carl Bek-Nielsen, CEO of United Plantations Bhd.
“This adversely affects the ability to enter the fields and harvest the crop, let alone bring out the crop as fields are under water.”
In Sarawak, Malaysia’s second-biggest palm growing state, the drop in yields may be more severe than the 15% to 20% initially estimated over the next two months, according to Andrew Cheng, CEO of the Sarawak Oil Palm Plantation Owners Association.
That is because the acute worker shortage compounds production problems caused by floodwaters which have inundated plantations and interrupted harvesting, he said.
“I believe many oil palm plantations in Sarawak’s lower-lying areas will be affected, especially with the King Tide coming in,” Cheng said, referring to an especially high tide, which may lead to prolonged flooding.
“Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the movement control order, we are unable to assess the overall situation.” Sarawak makes up about 21% of the country’s total palm oil output.
Malaysia’s shortage of palm oil workers has become “much, much worse” compared with six months ago, and was likely responsible for up to 90% of the 3.6 million tonnes of fresh fruit bunches lost last year, Bek-Nielsen said.
“We are at a breaking point that will result in considerable crop losses in 2021,” he said. While first quarter production will not be much lower than last quarter, the impact from the acute labour shortage “will really start to bite and impact production from April to October”, leading to a drop in output this year to 18.6 million tonnes. Output was 19.14 million tonnes in 2020.
To relieve the shortage of foreign workers, planters are seeking government approval for a safe way to bring guest workers into Malaysia, where all Covid-19 testing and quarantine costs are borne by employers, he said.
Meanwhile, FGV Holdings Bhd, one of the country’s biggest producers, said about 3,600ha in Pahang, Johor, Perak, Negeri Sembilan and Sabah were affected by flash floods, although there is no serious impact to field operations and mills are running as usual despite a drop in daily volumes.
Still, there will be a “slight impact on yield production due to weather affecting labour productivity in January and in the first quarter”, it said in emailed responses. “We estimate the potential reduction in yields to be about 20% for January as compared to the earlier month, and by almost 20% in 1Q from the earlier period.”
In Indonesia, the world’s top producer, plantations have not been affected by the recent flooding in South Kalimantan, according to the Indonesian Palm Oil Association, or Gapki.