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Purdue University Report: Palm Oil Is Still Unsustainable

Words by Nithin Coca
Energy & Environment
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A new report conducted by Purdue University and published in the journal Science of the Total Environment says it loud and clear – palm oil, the world’s most popular oil, is not, and likely never will be, sustainable. So what do we do now?

Since the turn of century, palm oil has gone from being a marginal regional ingredient to the world’s most popular oil. First, it gained traction across Europe in the early 2000s, where demand for palm oil-based biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels expanded the market for the oil. Later, demand came from the United States, where palm oil was seen as a less expensive and more healthful replacement for hydrogenated oils, which researchers said posed health risks, leading some municipalities to ban their use. More recently, the driver is the growing demand for cooking oils in fast-growing China and India. Global companies that use palm oil that is likely sourced from deforestation include many of the world’s most recognizable brands, as named by the NGOs including Rainforest Action Network.

Palm oil has some advantages over other oils. The trees from which palm fruit is picked can grow fast, and this fruit has a high oil density. In general, less land is required to create similar quantities of palm oil when compared to other common oils, such as those derived from canola, soybean or coconut.

In an op-ed TriplePundit published earlier this month, Anita Neville, Vice President of Corporate Communications and Sustainability Relations at Golden Agri-Resources, argued that palm oil is sustainable primarily for this reason, citing a recent report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature stating that shifting away from palm oil would significantly increase the total land area used for vegetable oil production to meet global demand.

“Currently, palm oil production uses about 7 percent of the world’s agricultural land to produce 32 percent of the world’s oil needs. Palm oil also requests much less fertilizer and pesticides as compared with rapeseed (canola) and soybean,” said Neville.

Here’s the problem – not all land is equal, especially from an environmental or biodiversity perspective. Oil palm trees grow only in tropical regions, in the same place where rainforests exist. Rainforests are the lungs of the planet, sequester immense carbon stocks and host widespread biodiversity.

And it is that diversity, along with their capacity to store carbon, that makes these rainforests especially valuable. An acre – or even several acres – of midwestern fields used to grow corn for oil does not have nearly the same impact as an acre of tropical forest being burned for oil palm usage. In Indonesia, these forests – which account for the vast majority of palm oil production, have 10 percent of the world’s known plant species, 12 percent of mammal species and 17 percent of all known bird species.

“Oil palms are grown in some of the most sensitive and ecologically important forests in the world. Protecting them is important,” said Roberto Cazzolla Gatti, research associate at the Forest Advanced Computing and Artificial Intelligence Lab at Purdue in a press statement. “If you need to produce palm oil, you need to remove forest. That’s what we’re seeing.”

Forest cover loss is also a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Part of the reason is that the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan, where the bulk of palm oil productions takes place, are peatlands, naturally wet and swampy and dense carbon stocks. Before palm oil plantations arrived, local people never planted on peat, living instead alongside rivers or on higher ground. Because palm oil requires dry land to grow, palm-oil plantation owners drained the peat, leaving the land in an unnaturally dry state. This dry state risks becoming a tinder box for fires, releasing massive amounts of emissions into the atmosphere.

Going back to the question about sustainable palm oil: the study found that there was little difference in deforestation rates between unsustainable palm oil and conventionally-grown palm oil grown in areas under certification schemes like the oft-criticized Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

In fact, recent studies suggest that palm oil actually produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the same quantity of fossil fuels. The European Union has learned from its mistake, passing new regulations that would no longer allow the use of unsustainable biofuels with its market by 2030. Norway, too, will stop unsustainable palm oil from being imported into the country.

But what is the alternative? Banning the use of palm oil as a biofuel would be a big step in reducing its demand. Shifting cultivation away from the peatlands of Indonesia and Malaysia and to more suitable areas, such as its native West Africa, would be next. One project that holds potential is being run by Nature Habitats, whose Palm Done Right project in Ecuador demonstrates how palm oil could benefit the planet. They plant palm oil trees in the right landscapes, integrate it with local ecosystems, use organic farming methods and empower local communities to own and manage these small-scale plantations.

This is far beyond anything the RSPO or other “sustainable” initiatives are accomplishing in Southeast Asia. Palm oil can be a net benefit to people and the planet and can be sustainable – but only if the industry and companies along the supply chains are willing to dramatically change their practices.

Image credit: CIFOR/Flickr

Nithin Coca

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

Read more stories by Nithin Coca