Palm Oil’s Inconvenient Truth

Feature Image: By Craig – Own work, Public Domain from Wikipedia

Why is palm oil so popular?

Palm oil comes from oil palm trees (Elaeis quineensis) and is used for a variety of products worldwide, including foods and soaps. The palm fruit produces two different oils: palm oil from the flesh (called mesocarp) used primarily for food products, and palm kernel oil from the seed inside the mesocarp used for producing soaps and detergent products. The remaining palm kernel meal is used for animal feed (Basiron 2007). The palm species itself is a native to Africa, and the industry has genetically modified it through breeding selection to maximize oil production efficiency.

Indonesia and Malaysia are the world’s leading producers and exporters of palm oil, accounting for over 80% of the world’s palm oil production. Oil palm cultivation began in the early 1900s and grew slowly until the 1980s when investments in the crop began to rise exponentially. Since then, the industry has exploded across tropical countries near the equator. Global land under palm oil production increased from 8.8 million acres in 1961 to 34.3 million acres in 2007 (FAO 2009). Though Malaysia and Indonesia produce other products such as rubber, cocoa, and coconuts, growers’ preference has understandably shifted to the more profitable palm oil (Basiron 2007).

The draw to palm oil is its high oil yield per unit area. Oil palm yield is estimated at 7.7 tons of oil per acre per year. In comparison, an acre of soybeans produces just 0.24 tons of oil per year. Economic life spans of palms are 25-30 years.  Seedlings are planted at 1 year of age, about 30 ft apart, producing a density of 59 palms/acre (Basiron 2007).

Oil palm fruit grows in bunches. Source: Cayambe CC BY-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons
Environmental effects

Although palm oil delivers substantial economic benefits, arguably the greatest criticism of the industry comes from its effects on the environment, mainly through the conversion of tropical forests to plantation. A review by Wilcove and Koh (2010) argues palm oil agriculture is the greatest immediate threat to biodiversity in Southeast Asia. Their conclusion is based on four main points.

First and foremost, palm oil is lucrative. The magnitude of deforestation across Southeast Asia in recent decades has largely been driven solely by palm oil plantation expansion, with no sign of slowing. Leading palm oil producers have planned to expand plantations into Brazil, Papua New Guinea, Liberia, and the Philippines (Butler 2008, 2009a, 2009b).

Secondly, consumers can have but limited influence because boycotts are unlikely to succeed. This is because the vast number of products utilizing unsustainably grown palm oil is vast. Some of the most common products that use palm oil are bread, chips, margarine, soap, ice cream, noodles, shampoo, and chocolate, items that you may never consider to be culprits.

Third, there is insufficient global demand for sustainable palm oil. In 2004, a group called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established to promote production and use of sustainable oil. Certified sustainable palm oil, however, is 8-15% more expensive than uncertified palm oil. In two of the largest markets for palm oil, China and India, consumers have shown little interest in purchasing RSPO certified oil. The economies with the greatest interest in sustainable oil, Europe, Australia, and the U.S., only consume 19% of global palm oil (FAO 2009).

Finally, rural communities have come to reply on plantations as sources of employment and income. The industry has significantly increased employment opportunities and income for rural communities, bringing millions of people out of poverty. In addition to income, many plantations provide their employees with medical care, schooling, and housing that would otherwise be inaccessible.

What can be done?

From an ecological perspective, oil palm plantations generally lack forest-dwelling species and little can be done to improve biodiversity within plantations. The best and perhaps only way to accommodate conservation of biodiversity is to stop conversion of existing forests into oil palm plantations. Currently, this option appears unlikely given the points above. However, there are initiatives that could potentially curb this seemingly hopeless environmental dilemma.

First, the RSPO certification program continues to promote sustainable plantation practices that are required to benefit the 3 Ps of people, planet, and prosperity. The 3 Ps concept for sustainable development was founded at the Rio Earth Summit of 1992. Currently 19% of global palm oil is RSPO certified, a number that is growing (RSPO 2017). Many European countries have committed to 100% certified palm oil, and other countries such as the U.S. and Australia are displaying positive momentum towards full committal to certified palm oil.

The concept of REDD – reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation – is another option that may help slow biodiversity loss. REDD refers to incentives for changing the way we use forest resources. The concept works by providing monetary rewards for sustainable forest management in developing countries and making poor forest management practices less lucrative. In the context of palm oil, REDD payments would redirect funding from developed countries to developing countries for the purpose of protecting forests.  The success of this incentive depends on market conditions and making REDD economically competitive with palm oil (Butler 2009).

According the Wilcove and Koh (2010), there is no simple solution for limiting the expansion of oil palm and threats to biodiversity in Southeast Asia. However, initiatives such as RSPO certifications and REDD, as well as increasing environmental education and awareness of biodiversity, could all potentially help reduce biodiversity loss. Palm oil production momentum is growing; preserving biodiversity in these regions is contingent upon conservation efforts’ ability to catch up with that momentum, and keep up.

 

Palm oil come from the species Elaeis guineensis (from Africa). Source: Marco Schmidt – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5 from Wikipedia
References:

Basiron, Y. 2007. Palm oil production through sustainable plantations. European Journal of Lipid Science and Technology. 109:289-295. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejlt.200600223

Butler, R.A. 2008. Palm oil industry moves into the Amazon Rainforest. Mongabay.com. Available via URL. http://news.mongabay.com/2008/0709-amazon_palm_oil.html. Accessed June 2009.

Butler, R.A. 2009a. Sime Darby signs palm oil deal in Liberia. Mongabay.com. Available via URL. http://news.mongabay.com/2009/0504-liberia_palm_oil.html. Accessed June 2009.

Butler, RA. 2009b. Malaysian palm oil firms seek 100,000 ha in the Philippines. Mongabay.com. Available via URL. http://news.mongabay.com/2009/0608-mindanao_palm_oil.html. Accessed June 2009.

FAO. 2009. FAOSTAT online statistical service. Food and Agriculture Organization of the Unites Nations (FAO), Rome, Italy. Available via URL. http://faostat.fao.org/. Accessed June 2009.

RSPO. 2017. Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil. Available at www.rspo.org. Accessed October 2018.

Wilcove, D.S. and L.P. Koh. 2010. Addressing the threats to biodiversity from oil-palm agriculture. Biodiversity Conservation 19:999-1007. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10531-009-9760-x

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Whitney Kroschel

Whitney Kroschel

I am currently a PhD Candidate at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, LA. My research interests are generally in the fields of plant ecology, seed ecology, and wetland science. My dissertation research is evaluating the effects of flooding on tree species composition in forested wetlands.

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