The world’s most consumed edible oil is facing a supply crunch


PALM oil production in Malaysia is on course for its weakest showing in five years as planters grapple with the worst-ever labour shortage in the second-biggest grower, and the low yields are likely to last through March. 

The country’s output may slide below 18 million tonnes this year, according to Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA) CEO Nageeb Wahab, a growers’ group that represents 40% of palm plantations by area. 

That’s a drop of at least 6% from last year and the lowest annual volume since 2016. 

Palm, the most consumed edible oil, has been a leading driver of this year’s stunning rally in global vegetable oil markets. 

Lower supplies in Malaysia and a crop disaster in Canada, the top grower of canola, have coincided with pent-up demand as economies reopen. 

Palm oil has repeatedly notched fresh records, while canola climbed to an all-time high and soy oil hit a 13-year peak in May. 

“Even before the pandemic we were already short of workers — mainly harvesters — but it was never this bad,” Nageeb said by phone from Kuala Lumpur. 

“The shortage is becoming worse month by month. This is a historic crunch of workers and it’s causing a multi-year shortfall in production.” 

Yields will taper down toward the year-end and will likely remain weak in the first quarter (1Q) of 2022, Nageeb said. 

Production may improve in 2Q, but on the condition that harvesters — including the 32,000 foreign workers the government had approved — are allowed to enter the country. 

Moreover, the lack of skilled harvesters on estates have left fresh fruit bunches rotting on trees, preventing farmers from capitalising on palm’s record rally. 

It also means that they’ve “missed the boat” on the crop’s high production months that usually run from August to October, Nageeb said. 

Crude palm oil output fell 3.3% in the first 20 days of October from a month earlier, according to MPOA estimates. 

Benchmark futures climbed 1% to RM4,973 a tonne by the midday break yesterday compared to a record high of RM5,220 reached last week. 

“We never had that peak production this year because of the high crop losses,” Nageeb said. 

The industry is losing around 20%-30% of potential production this year and will miss out on about RM20 billion ringgit in revenue, or about double the amount last year. 

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob has offered a glimmer of hope on the labour shortage, by saying on last Friday that the country will allow entry of fully vaccinated migrant workers into the plantation industry on a case-by-case basis, although the quota and arrival dates have not been decided. 

The volatile mix of production issues, either because of the weather or coronavirus restrictions and resurgent global demand mean the industry is still in unprecedented times. 

“We’re in uncharted waters because of historical high prices and price volatility,” said Marcello Cultrera, an institutional sales manager and broker at Phillip Futures in Kuala Lumpur.