In recent years, the oil palm sector has witnessed a period of historically high prices with buoyant global demand and high levels of production driven largely by economic development in major Asian countries such as India and China. However, the oil palm sector is also confronted by many important challenges that require attention. Such challenges include fragmentation of the industry, stagnating yields, and an image problem that is largely due to the conversion of tropical rainforest and peatlands in a few regions in South-east Asia. The biological and managerial tools to surmount these challenges already exist but need more focussed application and political support. Potentially groundbreaking biological tools include the new molecular breeding technologies, such as those made possible by the recent publication of the oil palm genome sequence (Singh et al., 2013a, b). Two key R&D targets for the industry are:
• higher oil yield in fruits and trees; and
• higher mesocarp oleic acid composition – preferably over 65% w/w.
The more focussed use of new and traditional technologies can also help to confront pest and disease problems, to redesign of crop architecture, and to facilitate yield and harvesting efficiency. In the mediumterm future, we can look forward to a considerable geographical extension of oil palm cultivation in a broad zone across the tropics of Africa, Asia and the Americas. If these and other measures can be taken, increased palm oil output could more than meet the highest projections for future vegetable oil requirements while minimising adverse environmental consequences. Improved oil palm varieties could also considerably increase the global market share for this highly productive tropical crop at the expense of some of the less efficient temperate oilseed crops.
* University of South Wales, CF37 4AT, United Kingdom.
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Last updated: 24 February 2017
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