Improving nutritional quality and stability of palm oil produced by African smallholders to fulfil African consumers’ needs

Project consortium and fund

Partner 1: Jean-Jacques Bessoule, Université de Bordeaux, Laboratoire de Biogenèse Membranaire, France, (Funder: ANR, France)

Partner 2: Dan Agyei-Dwarko, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research-Oil Palm Research Institute (CSIR-OPRI), Crop Improvement Division, Kade, Ghana, (Funder: CSIR-STEPRI, Ghana)

Partner 3: Peter Dörmann (co-ordinator), University of Bonn, Institute de Molecular Physiology and Biotechnology of Plants (IMBIO), Germany, (Funder: BLE, Germany)

Partner 4: George NgandoEbongue, Institute of Agricultural Research for Development (IRAD), Center for Oil Palm Research (CEREPAH), Cameroon, (Funder: MINRESI, Cameroon)

Thematic and geographic area of the project:    

Sustainable food security: Cultivation of improved oil palm varieties including better resistance to diseases and adaptation to extreme climates will increase yield.

Plant sciences: Provide biochemical and genetic information on wild accession and breeding material for palm oil trees. Genitor trees with high vitamin E and provitamin A contents.

Nutritious value chain: Production of crude palm oil with improved vitamin content and enhanced stability allowing transportation and storage without spoiling. Increased used of crude palm oil as a vitamin A supply in African areas where there is vitamin A deficiency.

Food technology and safety: Low lipase and high vitamin E palm oil will show increased shelf life and will result in stable market supply and less volatile prices, and accessibility for populations at distal locations (oil can be further transported).

Post-harvest innovations: Introduction of appropriate harvesting and processing practices to smallholders will increase palm oil production and income. Processors will be sensitized to health and environmental issues associated with palm oil processing (smoke inhalation, use of unapproved fuels e.g. worn lorry tires, mill hygiene, discharge of mill effluents into streams/water bodies and general pollution of the environment).

Food value-chain: Reduction of health problems for infants, children and adults caused by vitamin A deficiency.

Breeding of African Oil Palm for improved oil quality. Central and West Africa (Ghana, Cameroon)

Project’s summary/abstract:                    

The VITAPALM project is targeted at laying the foundations for breeding new varieties of African Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis) that produce non-refined crude oil with improved nutritional qualities (lower saturated fat, higher levels of vitamins) and increased stability (low lipase content). For this purpose, we will take advantage of natural variability within oil palm elite genitors to select appropriate trees, and we will also include wild palm trees. We will screen oil palm fruits for total fatty acid composition, free fatty acid content, vitamin E (tocopherol/tocotrienol) and provitamin A (carotenoid) contents. In addition, we will carry out genetic analyses to identify molecular markers for future marker-assisted selection. At last, we will perform an in depth study on the flexibility brought by low-lipase lines to define new harvesting practices compatible with those of smallholders, and leading to oil with lower free fatty acid levels. We expect that more stable crude oil with high levels of vitamins will prove an important asset to reduce vitamin A deficiency in Africa. Also, consumers will pay a premium for improved crude palm oil, leading to increased income for African smallholders.

Project’s main objective(s):                             

The aim of this project is to breed new genotypes of oil palm, specifically destined to cultivation by smallholders, and that produce non-refined crude oil with improved qualities so that it fits best with African consumer nutritionalneeds including low lipase, high provitamin A/vitamin E dietary supply, lower saturated fat, enhanced stability/shelf life and also appetence in line with African traditional eating habits.

Theory of Change and Impact Pathway

Summary ToC with assumptions                         

Crude red palm oil is the most important source of vitamin A and the most important edible oil in Central and Western Africa. It is mostly produced by smallholders and provides millions of jobs in Africa. However, smallholder-produced crude palm oil is of poor quality and stability. An important part of the production is not edible according to FAO/WHO standards (because it contains more than 5% free fatty acid due to lipase activity). Concerning lipase inactivation, smallholders frequently lack access to appropriate facilities and/or the knowledge to adequately process fruit bunches. Thus, the oil spoils rapidly and can be consumed locally only, and not transported to areas where vitamin A deficiency occurs. In addition, it contains large amounts of saturated fatty acids which may lead to increased incidences of cardiovascular diseases.

Oil composition and degradation is a consequence of metabolic events in fruits due to the genetic background of cultivars. Little efforts have been brought by breeders to improve crude palm oil dietary and nutritional qualities despite documented variability for these traits. Breeders prefer to increase oil yield to produce refined oil (with much reduced vitamin content) destined for international markets for food industry. In addition, a strong mesocarp lipase activity in fruits leads to oil spoiling if fruit bunches are not boiled within 24 h of harvest, decreasing oil quality, stability and market value.

Our project aims at identifying oil palm genitor lines with improved oil composition. These genitor lines will be used for breeding new palm varieties producing crude oil with improved nutritional qualities and increased stability, adapted to production by African smallholders and well-inserted into African traditional diet.

Expected outcomes and impact:                          

First output will be identification of appropriate genitor trees after screening. Breeders will cross these to rapidly generate new varieties to be transferred to stakeholders. Also, traits can be introgressed into most appropriate elite trees and use of molecular markers, another output of the project, will tremendously speed up the process. The new flexibility brought about by low-lipase genotypes in harvesting and processing practices and the gains these will bring to oil quality and stability represents another output. The outcome of the project will be adoption of these improved varieties by smallholders together with new harvesting and processing practices. This improved oil produced by smallholders will sell at better prices on local and international markets, allowing increased income. It will be possible to transport this oil and use it as vitamin A dietary supply in regions which need it. Consumers will benefit from stable supplies and prices, for oil with improved nutritional quality (higher vitamins, lower saturated fat) and greater appetence (deeper red color, increased fluidity). The last output of our project, i.e. genotyping wild accessions, will allow the use of modern genetics for long-term improvement of the crop in a sustainable way. This collection will provide increased variability in cultivated palm, leading to numerous improvements including improved disease resistance. The collection includes trees from most extreme climates so it will prove a great asset to improve palm cultivation in the context of climate change.