Chemicals

Use of fertilisers

Prudent use of inorganic fertilisers is essential to obtain maximum yields at minimum cost, reduce GHG emissions and avoid water pollution from run-off or leaching. The group’s inorganic fertiliser regime is designed by independent agronomy consultants, based on analysis of the nutrient content of systematically selected oil palm frond samples, supplemented by visual inspection of palm canopies and soil sampling. In 2015, it became evident that too little fertiliser was being applied, resulting in a nutrient deficiency in the soils and palms and, as a consequence, lower FFB productivity. The impact of the reduced application and uptake of inorganic fertiliser was exacerbated by the prolonged droughts during 2015 and 2016 as moisture is required to mobilise the nutrients in the fertiliser to make them available to the palms. Fertiliser application during drought conditions is both costly and a waste of resources.

To overcome a nutrient deficiency detected in 2015, following some reductions from historic levels in annual inorganic fertiliser applications over the period 2012 to 2014, applications of inorganic fertilisers were returned to, and are now maintained at, their historic levels. The group seeks to optimise the quantity of organic and inorganic fertiliser that it applies and supplements inorganic applications with empty fruit bunches (“EFB”), a waste product from the mills. The application of EFB for mulching provides the palms with organic matter that helps to retain ground moisture which is important during dry weather periods and also helps to minimise the quantities of inorganic fertiliser required.

Use of pesticides

REA endeavours to control pests without using chemicals wherever possible. The group’s long established Integrated Pest Management system aims to prevent pest outbreaks by boosting biological control. In order to optimise natural pest control, REA has planted species of plants known to attract natural predators of the major leaf eating pests of oil palms, including Bagworms and Nettle Caterpillars. These species (Turnera subulata, Turnera Ulmifolia, Antigonon leptopus) are planted at regular intervals along roads and on the corners of oil palm sub blocks throughout the group’s plantations. Whilst introducing barn owls is a common strategy for controlling rodents in oil palm plantations, REA has not found this to be necessary. It is thought that the population of other natural rat predators, such as leopard cats, is sufficient to control the rat population. The presence and distribution of leopard cats and other mammals is monitored by REA’s conservation team using camera traps.

Should natural pest control fail, REA has an early warning system in place to ensure that pests are detected and action taken before the problem escalates. Two harvesters in each division are tasked with monitoring the oil palms for any sign of pest damage. If signs of a pest outbreak are detected, the group’s research audit team conducts a thorough pest census immediately to identify the species involved, the scale of the outbreak and the treatment required. Wherever possible mechanical or natural means are used to halt a pest outbreak and mitigate damage to the oil palms. Since 2005, REA has only experienced a few minor pest outbreaks, all of which have been successfully controlled by removing the affected area of the plant. Chemicals are only used to control pests as a last resort.

Where it is necessary to use chemicals to control weeds or pests, precautions are taken to protect the health and safety of employees and the environment. The medical team conducts blood and lung tests twice a year to check for chemical exposure in workers who come into regular contact with pesticides. If workers test positive for pesticide exposure, they are rotated out of spraying and into other roles. In response to growing pressure for palm oil producers to phase out Paraquat due to fears that improper handling of this herbicide may endanger the health of workers, REA ceased to use this chemical in 2013. Instead, a less hazardous glufosinate ammonium based herbicide called Basta is used.