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 Mahamad Rodzi Abdul Ghani
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 Oil palm research takes off in Colombia

21 January 2005 [BOGOTA] Plans to increase Colombia's share of the globalpalm oil market received a boost last month when the Centre for Oil PalmResearch, Cenipalma, opened its first research station.

Researchers at the experimental farm - called La Vizcaína - will attemptto breed new varieties of oil palm that produce higher yields of betterquality oil. They will also try to improve the palms' ability to resistattack by crop pests and diseases.

This site is intended to become a living collection of oil palm varieties,with about half of the farm's 825 hectares set aside for growing samplesof both the American oil palm (Elaeis oleifera) and the African oil palm(Elaeis guineensis). Both species are grown in Colombia.

At the opening of La Vizcaína, Cenipalma's director Pedro L. Gómez saidthe station would create the world's largest and most genetically diversecollection of varieties of the American oil palm. The centre has alsosigned agreements to obtain samples of the African palm from Angola andNigeria, where the species has been studied for more than 30 years.

Oil palms produce more oil than any other plants and the oil is widelyused in foods, cosmetics, and detergents.

Although Colombia only started to grow oil palm on a large scale in the1980s, today it is the world's fourth biggest exporter of palm oil andother oil palm products after Malaysia, Indonesia and Nigeria.

This growth is partly because Cenipalma researchers have helped palmgrowers by improving palm varieties and identifying better approaches tocultivating them.

"Researchers from Cenipalma go to the farms and start working very closelywith the entrepreneurs, specifically looking for solutions to solve theproblems they have," Gómez told SciDev.Net. "That's our focus, ourresearch methodology, and that's why we have been successful".

One challenge for entrepreneurs who want to become more competitive is theneed to increase productivity, says Argemiro Reyes, chief executiveofficer of palm oil producer Palma y Extractora Monterrey SA.

"We know that without research it is not easy to be competitive as palmproducers," Reyes told SciDev.Net.

Already, Cenipalma researchers have increased oil production per hectarefrom 2.5 tonnes in 1990, to an average of four tonnes in 2004.

"Some growers are producing eight tonnes per hectare," says Gómez. Hehopes that scientists at La Vizcaína, who plan to boost yields of oil bycrossing the American and African palm species, will produce plantsyielding 12 tonnes of oil per hectare.

One of the researchers, Leonardo Rey, says his team is also attempting toincrease the levels of nutrients - such as carotenes and vitamin E - inpalm oil by hybridising the two species.

The research station, located in Colombia's hot and humid Magdalena Medioregion, was funded by Cenipalma, the Colombian government, a loan from anational bank (Banco Agrario) and some private sector funding from oilfarm farmers.

Cenipalma is a non-profit research organisation funded partly by thegovernment and partly by oil palm growers.

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