Many people born in the West have heard of durian, the smelly fruit so pungent it’s famously banned on public transport in Singapore, though few have tasted it. Described by the French naturalist Henri Mouhot as tasting on first bite like ‘the flesh of some animal in a state of putrefaction’, a seemingly impossible array of flavours are now attributed to it, from caramel and almonds, to feet, rotting eggs and garlic.
In China, where the fruit is commonly incorporated into cakes, ice-cream and even pizza, durian imports into the country rose 15 per cent last year to nearly 350,000 tonnes. While 40 per cent came from Thailand – still the major exporter – Malaysia, more commonly associated with the production of rubber and palm oil, is getting in on the action, with the government encouraging large-scale farming of the fruit. In August last year, Malaysian prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad was reported as saying: ‘I feel it is time that we produce durians on a large-scale and systematic manner. In China alone there are 1.4 billion people who enjoy the fruit.’
There are officially 134 varieties of durian in Malaysia but the Musang King, grown almost exclusively in the country and said to have a rich, creamy flavour, is the most highly prized. The price of the variety has nearly quadrupled in the last five years, leading to reports that farmers are switching from palm oil (prices of which have steadily fallen) to durian. According to Reuters, the agricultural ministry has already started to plant durian on land owned by a state-owned palm oil company. While Malaysia is still a small-scale exporter, the value of its durian shipments to China in the first eight months of 2018 hit 7.4 million ringgit (£1.4m), more than double the value in the same period of 2017. A deal that came into force at the start of 2019 now allows Malaysia to export whole, frozen durian to China for the first time (previously it was limited to pulp and paste) opening the way for what the government reportedly hopes will be a 50 per cent jump in exports by 2030.
While durian presents opportunities for Malaysian farmers it has raised concerns among environmental groups, some of which, most notably PEKA Malaysia, have pointed to wide-scale deforestation of forests in the central Raub region to make way for durian plantations. For conservationist Sheema Abdul Aziz, president of research group Rimba, one of the biggest concerns is that deforestation will add to the plight of Malaysia’s endangered fruit bats, animals that also happen to be the most efficient pollinator of durian fruit. It’s a potential catch-22 for the industry, but one that Aziz says no one is listening to. ‘Loss of habitat and food resources will actually lead to pollinator deficits and ultimately pollination failure, which will then result in decreased durian fruit production,’ she says. ‘Destroying pollinator habitats and food resources in order to establish durian monoculture simply does not make good business sense.’
This was published in the April 2019 edition of Geographical magazine
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