Palm oil’s excessive yield masks environmental affect

In relation to sustainability, “palm oil is just the superior crop for its efficient land utilization,” based on the Malaysian Palm Oil Council. It argues that oil palm produces way more oil on far much less land than different main international oil seed crops corresponding to sunflower, rapeseed and soybean. The Indonesian Palm Oil Affiliation, a government-aligned group of main producers on the planet’s prime palm oil exporting nation, says palm oil’s land effectivity makes it “the right steadiness between land for conservation and land for agricultural growth”.

These arguments have been recurrently cited in international media. Articles in retailers corresponding to Smithsonian Journal use the productiveness argument to conclude that “giving up palm oil is likely to be unhealthy for the planet,” if it gave strategy to extra land-demanding options, and even quote related statements from environmental non-profits corresponding to WWF (World Extensive Fund for Nature) and CDP (previously Carbon Disclosure Challenge).

One of the vital latest sources backing this argument is a 2018 examine by the IUCN (Worldwide Union for Conservation of Nature), which states that oil palm produces as much as 9 occasions extra oil per unit space than different main oil crops. Palm oil, the report says, produces 36% of meals oil globally on simply 8.6% of the land devoted to meals oil manufacturing. It’s a standard chorus from not solely the palm oil trade, but additionally governments in key producing nations and even the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The RSPO argues that if we shift to different meals oils, we would want way more land, leading to doubtlessly extra deforestation and biodiversity loss.

annual yields of different vegetable oils

Supply: Frost & Sullivan Analysis • Graphic: China Dialogue

“There’s a rising demand for vegetable oil,” mentioned Juan Pablo Monzon, a researcher on the College of Nebraska–Lincoln. “If it isn’t lined by oil palm, will probably be lined by one other crop.” Monzon, very similar to the RSPO, factors to the potential environmental impacts this might have for nations producing different oil crops.

Productiveness isn’t the identical as sustainability

Many consultants, nevertheless, have issues with utilizing productiveness as a proxy for sustainability or local weather affect.

“The tacit assumption is that each one land has equal ecological potential. Clearly, that’s improper,” mentioned Chris Malins, an skilled in biofuels coverage who runs the consultancy Cerulogy. “The concept that simply since you get a greater yield with palm oil in Indonesia than with sunflowers in Belarus or Ukraine, that palm oil is by some means mechanically sustainable is trivial nonsense.”

Southeast Asia, which is chargeable for greater than 80% of worldwide palm oil manufacturing, is a biodiversity hotspot, and each Indonesia and Malaysia host carbon-rich peatlands. Palm oil has been linked to deforestation and peatland loss, which destroys the habitat of endangered species just like the Sumatran rhino and orangutan. Malins believes the productiveness argument not solely ignores the kind of landscapes during which completely different oil crops are grown, but additionally the life-cycle greenhouse fuel emissions from oil palm.

“The issue for palm oil is that its [carbon] footprint for each hectare of land that’s transformed is basically, actually unhealthy in comparison with the growth footprint of different oils,” mentioned Stephanie Searle, the Fuels Program Director on the non-profit Worldwide Council on Clear Transportation (ICCT). “Palm oil, far more than different oil crops, tends to develop in tropical forests with excessive carbon shares.”

Aerial view of a palm oil plantation built in a cleared rainforest in Papua province, Indonesia

A palm oil plantation in-built a cleared rainforest in Papua province, Indonesia. Palm oil has a excessive emissions footprint in comparison with different oil crops, as plantations are inclined to destroy tropical forests that include lots of carbon. (Picture © Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace)

Research from the European Union and the US Environmental Safety Company, in addition to non-profits and the ICCT (Worldwide Council on Clear Transportation) have all discovered that palm oil’s use in biofuels, which accounts for almost all of consumption in Europe, has larger emissions than not solely most different oils, however fossil fuels as effectively.

“The greenhouse fuel implications of palm oil use, in all of the modelling, are proven to be a lot larger than rapeseed, soy or sunflower,” mentioned Malins.

Yield and sustainability

A lot as utilizing productiveness as a proxy for sustainability is problematic, assuming that each one oil palm is grown on peatland or deforested land with high-climate and biodiversity impacts can also be inaccurate. Many advocates consider that, if grown in the correct landscapes and with correct administration methods, palm oil might be produced sustainably. For instance, rising oil palm on former cattle pasture land in Colombia has been discovered to cut back its carbon footprint.

One strategy to forestall elevated deforestation is to extend yields on present plantations. Malaysia averages 3.21 tonnes of oil per hectare, in comparison with Indonesia, the place it’s 3 tonnes per hectare. Inside that, nevertheless, there are higher-producing industrial plantations and lower-yielding smallholder plantations.

The concept that simply since you get a greater yield with palm oil in Indonesia than with sunflowers in Belarus or Ukraine, that palm oil is by some means mechanically sustainable is trivial nonsense

Chris Malins, biofuels skilled and advisor, Cerulogy

“There needs to be methods to enhance the yields on areas which have already been transformed to grease palm, as a result of then you may produce extra with present land – that hypothetically goes to cut back the growth of plantations,” mentioned Pablo Pacheco, the International Forests Lead Scientist at WWF.

In truth, rising yields, notably on smallholder plantations, is seen as key to assembly the rising demand for palm oil, together with for its use in biofuels in Southeast Asia, and exports to nations corresponding to India and China. Eliminating the conversion of tropical landscapes, and notably peatlands, may considerably cut back palm oil’s affect on greenhouse fuel emissions and ecosystems.

Since 2019, Monzon and a crew of researchers from Indonesia, Europe and the US have been working with smallholder oil palm plantations, who’ve the bottom yields, to see how they will improve manufacturing to fulfill Indonesia’s palm oil targets with out requiring land conversion, and supply larger financial advantages.


“Oil palm is basically essential for Indonesia as it’s one in every of their foremost exports, and greater than 40% of the realm planted is planted through smallholders,” Monzon informed China Dialogue. “It’s crucial as an earnings supply. Hundreds of thousands of farmers and households depend upon this crop.”

Monzon and his crew discovered, as a part of the primary section of their analysis, that it’s doable to fulfill future demand by rising yield, but it surely must improve at a very excessive charge. They’re at the moment piloting check tasks with smallholders in six provinces to find out what administration methods can finest assist farmers – and have robust outcomes to date.

“The primary yr, yields elevated by 10%, and are actually up 30%,” mentioned Monzon. “We hope to extend the yield much more.”

There are issues, nevertheless, that intensification of smallholder plantations may consequence within the shifting of multi-crop plots to monoculture farms, bringing each social and environmental impacts.

an oil palm fruit bunch on scales, in front of smallholders working in the background

A smallholder in Sumatra, Indonesia, prepares palm fruit bunches for transport to a close-by mill. Growing yields on smallholder plantations is a method advocated by many to keep away from land conversion and cut back the crop’s affect on emissions and biodiversity. (Picture © John Novis / Greenpeace)

“If farmers change into too depending on one crop, they change into a bit extra weak to financial shocks,” mentioned Pacheco. There are additionally potential spill-over results too. “If there may be going to be a rise in yields, that’s going to extend the profitability of plantations, that might appeal to extra palm oil. You may hypothetically save forests, however you may also produce new incentives to maintain increasing plantations.”

Robust insurance policies that forestall growth are, Pacheco believes, key – and maybe pressing. The latest expiration of a ban on issuing new licences for oil palm plantations in Indonesia may, some environmentalists say, improve the clearing of forests for oil palm growth.

Palm oil in numerous landscapes

There’s additionally a must suppose past yields, particularly with regards to smallholders, who function in numerous landscapes.

“There’s now a dialogue rising on whether or not it will be doable to advertise oil palm as a part of extra diversified techniques,” mentioned Pacheco. This will likely result in decrease yields of palm oil, however rising it in agroforestry techniques that assist native biodiversity, or with native crops like rattan or cassava.


“The productiveness of every oil palm tree isn’t going to be affected whether it is grown with different perennials, however the variety of timber goes to lower,” mentioned Pacheco. But, it may present diversified earnings, and might be extra sustainable from an environmental perspective, regardless of its decrease per hectare productiveness.

For Malins and Pacheco, a extra science-driven, holistic view of sustainability – past productiveness speaking factors – can be vital for the palm oil trade, if its commodity is to change into a very accountable alternative globally.

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