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[BOGOTA] Plans to increase Colombia's share of the global palm oil market received a boost last month when the Centre for Oil Palm Research, Cenipalma, opened its first research station.

Researchers at the experimental farm — called La Vizcaína — will attempt to breed new varieties of oil palm that produce higher yields of better quality oil. They will also try to improve the palms' ability to resist attack 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 samples of 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 said the station would create the world's largest and most genetically diverse collection of varieties of the American oil palm. The centre has also signed agreements to obtain samples of the African palm from Angola and Nigeria, where the species has been studied for more than 30 years.

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

Although Colombia only started to grow oil palm on a large scale in the 1980s, today it is the world's fourth biggest exporter of palm oil and other oil palm products after Malaysia, Indonesia and Nigeria.

This growth is partly because Cenipalma researchers have helped palm growers by improving palm varieties and identifying better approaches to cultivating them.

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

Oil palm fruit

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

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

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

"Some growers are producing eight tonnes per hectare," says Gómez. He hopes that scientists at La Vizcaína, who plan to boost yields of oil by crossing the American and African palm species, will produce plants yielding 12 tonnes of oil per hectare.

One of the researchers, Leonardo Rey, says his team is also attempting to increase the levels of nutrients — such as carotenes and vitamin E — in palm oil by hybridising the two species.

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

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