Studying genes could aid sustainable production of palm oil

By Andrew McDougall and Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Palm oil, Agriculture

A new research project aims to optimise the production and quality of palm oil, helping to produce more sustainable crops, by using molecular genetics to boost crop breeding.

The Oil Palm Genome Project may help to produce more sustainable plantations (requiring less water and fertiliser) which at the same time achieve higher production, therefore avoiding further deforestation for cultivation and production.

The research project involves companies from all over the world, in addition to research institutions such as Neiker-Tecnalia (the Basque Institute for Agricultural Research and Development) and the International Cooperation Centre in Agronomic Research for Development (CIRAD).

The goal of the project is to develop molecular tools for obtaining genomic resources, such as complementary DNAs and useful genes, molecular markers and functional genetic maps.

“Molecular genetic enhancement is seen as a very efficient alternative to using transgenics, which has sparked considerable social controversy,”​ said the Neiker-Tecnalia researchers.

Palm problems

In the past decade palm oil has become the largest source of vegetable oil worldwide, in terms of production and consumption.

Palm oil, palm kernel oil and their derivatives are present in about 70 per cent of cosmetic and personal care products.

Global demand has fuelled unsustainable growth of the palm industry over the past decade, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia, where farming and milling have been linked with rainforest destruction, pollution, human rights violations, and threats to endangered species such as the orangutan.

This has led to rising consumer awareness over negative social and environmental effects of palm oil production, the cosmetics industry, as well as other industries like food, is under increasing pressure to use palm oil that is sustainably sourced.

Coupled with rising demand for palm oil, this means plantations and ‘experimental stations’ are attempting to optimise crops with the aid of new biotechnological tools.

The Neiker-Tecnalia researchers said the selection and use of new varieties adapted to market demand will enable a more efficient use of the resources required for the growing of oil palm crops.

Related topics: Formulation & Science

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