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The impact of palm oil culture on biodiversity

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Context - Palm oil is one of the most used vegetable oils, in good part because oil palm culture is cost-effective.

However, oil palm plantations have been responsible for significant deforestation in many equatorial areas, mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia.

What is the impact of oil palm culture for biodiversity and how can it become sustainable?

This is a faithful summary of the leading report produced in 2018 by the World Conservation Union (IUCN): " Oil palm and biodiversity: A situation analysis by the IUCN Oil Palm Task Force" 

  • Source document:IUCN (2018)
  • Summary & Details: GreenFacts
Latest update: 26 April 2019

1. How is palm oil produced and what is its importance?

Since the 1990s, palm oil has become a global commodity widely used in processed foods, mainly because of its high yield. It is produced from palm trees cultivated in western Africa and South and Central America, but the highest concentration of palm oil fields is in Indonesia and Malaysia, which provide 85% of the world production. Small scale production actors in particular, which produce around 40% of global palm oil, are very important in the sector.

Fresh palm fruits are harvested and then crushed to extract the oil from the kernel and from the flesh of the fruit separately. The oil from the kernel is used mostly for soap and industrial purposes as well as for processed foods, while the oil from the fruit goes into food production. A palm oil plantation yields 3.8 tons of oil per hectare, compared to 0.8t for rapeseed oil, 0.7t for sunflower, and 0.5t for soy.

Almost 75% of the world production goes into food products, particularly cooking oil and processed oils and fats (e.g., margarine), but it is also used to produce biofuels.

2. What is the impact of oil palm production on biodiversity?

The main direct impact on biodiversity of the development of oil palm cultivation is the habitat loss caused by the deforestation and fire before planting. In some parts of the world, up to 50% of deforestation can be attributed to palm oil production. In this context, smallholder plantations tend to harbor higher diversity than industrial ones. Conflicts between wildlife and humans tend also to increase when oil palm plantations are established, with species like orangutans and tigers being displaced.

Some species, mainly so-called generalist species like pigs and some snakes, benefit from oil palm plantations because of the availability of food such as oil seeds for the pigs, and rodents like rats and squirrels as for the snakes. These species are used by plantation workers as an additional source of income, as pigs are killed for food, and snakes for their skin.

However, given the rising demand for vegetable oils and that the oil palm produces much more oil than other oil crops for the same cultivated area, moving away from palm oil might not be the best solution for a net positive effect on biodiversity. It is clear indeed that other agricultures also have a significant impact on biodiversity.

3. Are there impacts of palm oil production other than on biodiversity?

Other indirect impacts of palm oil production include the greenhouse gas emissions (CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, …) related to deforestation, the use of fire for clearing land, water quality, freshwater species diversity, invasive species associated with oil palm, pest-spillover effects and secondary impacts of hunting.

4. What can be done to mitigate the impact of oil palm on biodiversity?

The main strategy used to mitigate the impact of oil palm cultivation has been to address the loss of natural forests and of peat lands with actions ranging from government regulation to voluntary actions. Expansion of oil palm, without accounting for biodiversity, is not compatible with international biodiversity policies, and direct links between weaknesses in land governance, including corruption and collusion over obtaining oil palm development permits, are well established.

A number of steps can be taken in order to offset and minimize the predicted negative impact; they include:

  • Avoidance: addressing the impact before it happens so that it is not as severe; 
  • Restoration: on-site restoration of biodiversity following impact 
  • Compensation and offset: replacing the lost resources or providing alternatives and ensuring a net positive impact. 

There are voluntary certification systems in place, like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil1, that require producers to avoid clearing primary forests, protect rivers, avoid fires and control pollution. In the last decade, as public awareness of the problem of deforestation grows, there is a trend of individual corporate commitments of “no deforestation”, and the palm oil industry is one of the sectors where this level of commitment is the highest, with more than half of the companies having such a commitment. The Convention on Biological Diversity2 (CBD) also established intergovernmental targets of direct relevance to oil palm and biodiversity.

Governments of producing countries have also reacted to international debates on oil palm and deforestation. There can be policies in the countries where oil palms are grown, like the moratorium on deforestation in Indonesia, or in the countries that import palm oil, like the Amsterdam Declaration3, that support a fully sustainable supply chain.


5. What is the future of palm oil?

The global demand for vegetable oil is growing fast. The demand in 2050 is projected to be double of what it was in 2008, with a demand of 310 million tons, up from about 165 million tons in 2013. It is possible to increase the yield of current production through better management or use of more productive varieties, for instance, but that does not necessarily mean that there would not be more development and more land conversion, since palm oil production is a lucrative endeavor for investors.

There is room for cultivation of oil palm in Africa and South America, where there is still a relatively small production, but the environmental impact of expansion of oil palm plantations in those areas is understudied.

6. What are the main gaps in our knowledge about palm oil production impacts?

The most significant gaps that require further research are:

  • The socio cultural and economic impacts of oil palm development
  • Spatial distribution of the different vegetable oil crops, 
  • Modelling of past oil palm expansion in order to understand the constraints and model future expansion, 
  • The impact of large scale expansion on local climate and water regime
  • Costs and benefits of optimal biodiversity management for the growers, 
  • How species survive and move across oil palm landscapes, 
  • The characterization of the biodiversity value of traditional oil palm production and the feasibility and productivity of small-scale systems and the conservation benefits of such systems. 

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