The cultivation of palm oil continues to expand rapidly in the humid tropics, as does the equally heated debate about the crop’s environmental and social impact.
Malaysian scientists recently published a paper in Nature indicating they had isolated the plant’s oil-bearing genes. The authors state these could be emphasised to increase the palm oil’s already substantial advantage over other oil-producing crops - high yields at low cost - while reducing plantations’ impact on forests. But it’s far from clear this will reduce the impact that extensive palm oil plantations have on the livelihoods and well-being of local populations, or on the hugely biodiverse tropical forest ecosystems in which they are grown, where important species like orangutans are critically threatened.
The palm Elaeis guineensis is grown across more than 13.5m hectares (ha) of high-rainfall, low-lying areas, a zone naturally occupied by moist tropical forest - the most biologically diverse terrestrial ecosystem on Earth. It is the most productive oil-bearing crop, used as a vegetable oil and as a biofuel. Global production increased by almost 40% between 2000 and 2012, a rate of increase that is likely to continue rising with increased demand for biofuels. The EU, for example, is committed to sourcing 10% of transport energy from renewable sources by 2020, a target that will be met almost entirely using biofuels made from food crops. According to a report last year, in 2010 the EU’s biodiesel food crop feedstocks were rapeseed (56%), soybean (13%) and palm oil (9%).
Debate continues over the impact of palm oil production on the livelihoods of local people, biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions. So far there is little consensus about the long-term consequences, given a rapidly changing global energy sector and huge differences in the social, economic and ecological contexts of production in different parts of the world.
The extent to which palm oil has been a direct cause of deforestation until now is difficult to quantify, for example. But its potential as an agent of deforestation in the future is enormous, given that most of areas suitable for planting palm oil are currently forested.
Given this almost limitless global demand for palm oil (predicted world biodiesel demand in 2050 could be 277m tonnes, seven times current palm oil production), there is no guarantee that increased yields will reduce pressure on tropical forest or reduce the conflict between people, land and food in the poor countries of West Africa or Southeast Asia. The economics of production dictate the need to plant on an industrial scale, with plantations in Liberia for example extending to 300,000ha or more.
Many palm oil producers are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and adhere to the Principles and Criteria for certification. This means that new plantations must avoid areas defined as high conversation value areas, but in practice it is difficult to identify and map such areas.
There is also widespread disagreement about the significance for biodiversity and carbon storage of those forests that are logged. A recent study showed palm oil plantations had consistently far lower species richness than logged forests. But results from this and similar studies are highly context dependent: the groups and species of plants, the types of forest and the size of area studied are all important factors that need to be taken into account. There’s also disagreement over differences in carbon uptake and storage rates of palm oil compared to pristine or logged tropical forests.
So, efforts to increase the productivity of existing plantations, for example through high yielding varieties, could potentially reduce the need for more land to be cleared - the so-called “land-sparing” option. But this will only generate a conservation gain if it’s linked to the protection of natural habitats through strategic land-use planning.
In essence this means enforcing a much more sensitive approach to planning new plantations, with more focus on protecting and linking existing areas such as tropical forest remnants and other habitats. If this new approach is to work, even with the introduction of high-yielding varieties, it will mean an end to very large plantations covering tens of thousands of hectares.