‘Don’t confuse the crop with the people who develop it’: Q&A with palm oil researcher

Scientists become involved after environmentalists call for a boycott of palm oil.
A worker loading oil palm fruit off a truck in Sabah, Malaysia. Photo by M. Edliadi for the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

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YAOUNDE, Cameroon — Boycotts of palm oil because of deforestation wrongly place blame on the crop itself, a leading researcher says, while disregarding deforestation caused by other crops.

Palm oil — used in countless foods, cosmetics, and even biodiesel — has been in the spotlight in recent years, with consumer pressure leading some palm oil buyers to pledge no deforestation in their supply chain.

But the depiction of major corporate palm oil buyers as drivers of deforestation is overly simplistic, writes Patrice Levang, a researcher at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), co-author with Alain Rival, a researcher at CIRAD, of “Palms of controversies: oil palm and development challenges.”

He recently spoke about his book with CIFOR; an edited transcript of the interview follows.

Q: To some, oil palm is a miracle plant; to others, a global threat. Why is oil palm so controversial?

A: Well, the debate stems from the success of oil palm development, especially in Southeast Asia. In just a few years, millions of hectares have been converted into oil palm plantations. And this is where the controversy started, between the pros, the industrial sector—and the cons, the environmental groups.

Q: What role do you see for independent scientists in this debate?

A: The debate is very contentious between the pros and the cons. And this is why there is a need for a more balanced view, and this is where scientists come in and provide a real, balanced view between the good sides and the bad sides of oil palm development. … We [Levang and co-author Rival] decided to go down to the arena when some extremist, radical environmental groups decided to boycott palm oil, which, according to us, is a very bad solution because such a boycott would have more negative effects than positive ones. Replacing oil palm with other crops, like soybean for instance, would be disastrous to the forest.

Q: Who should read this book, and why?

A: It’s not a scientific publication—it’s a book for the layman. And so everybody who is interested in the debate is invited to read the book.

Q: The original print edition of the book, in French, was published in 2013. What has been the reaction?

A: We weren’t quite surprised, because during the last 10 years, every time somebody would try to defend oil palm as an interesting crop for smallholders or for the environment also, we were thrown shows at. And, quite surprisingly, the time has come now because people don’t believe anymore in everything which is said, and people were looking for this balanced view. And we had very positive reactions, and the book was sold out in one and a half months. It’s quite nice. We’re not always that successful.

Q: What are some facts about oil palm, the plant, that might surprise the general public?

A: I’d say the first thing is that oil palm originates from the countries bordering the Gulf of Guinea in Western and Central Africa. So, oil palm grows spontaneously in the tropical forest. And it’s only later that, thanks to its success, it became an industrial crop. … Probably one of the most interesting facts about oil palm is that it’s the highest-yielding oil-producing crop so far. [The second-highest crop] is eight to 10 times less productive. So, if you tried to replace palm oil with soybean, for instance, you need eight to 10 times more land. You need to convert eight to 10 times more forests.


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Q: In your book you ask if there is necessarily a relationship between oil plantations and deforestation. What is the answer to this question?

A: The answer is yes … and no. First, the development of oil palm was done by large agro-industries, and preferentially on forest land. So, of course oil palm can be considered as responsible for deforestation. But, oil palm does not need to be planted on forest lands. It’s just because it was the easiest way you can do it. You can plant oil palm on savannahs, as in Colombia. You can plant oil palm on degraded lands. So oil palm per se, as a crop, is not responsible for deforestation. Our major take-home message in the book is, don’t confuse the crop [with] the people who develop it.

Q: Is oil palm a driver of development as the companies claim, or is it a harbinger of increasing poverty, as some NGOs maintain?

A: The answer is mixed again. In most places where oil palm has been developed, all the people who adopted oil palm really were lifted out of poverty. The problem is, in many forested areas, once oil palm has been developed, before even the plantation started producing, the people sold their land just for quick cash. And a few years later they were left without plantation, without land, without money. And then, of course, they were not lifted out of poverty but were forced into destitution. But it was, as the companies say, their choice. But oil palm has this effect on economic differentiation. The ones who keep it get richer. The ones who don’t get on the train are left behind.

Q: You write that there are several ways in which oil palm plantations can be developed without destroying vast stretches of tropical forests. What are those?

A: Oil palm is a forest plant. So in the start it was just collected in the wild. Then it was progressively introduced in the agricultural sphere by people, and in different ways— you don’t need to use monoculture. You can do it [via] agroforestry: You can also mix oil palm plantations in diverse landscapes, in a “mosaic” landscape. And, of course, you can use it in an environmentally friendly way. The idea is not to convert huge stretches of forest into one mono-crop, but do it in a more ecologically, in a more environmentally friendly way.

Q: Where does your research go from here?

A: What we’re trying just now is to promote the sustainable development of oil palm in Cameroon and hopefully in Central Africa. Therefore, we help the Ministry of Agriculture to draft a national strategy for sustainable development of oil palm. In this, we also try to push, to introduce the smallholder agenda. But the idea is to convince agro-industries that there would be advantages for them to organize equitable, win-win schemes. By developing oil palm on already-cleared lands owned by communities or private planters, it’s that much land that will not be taken from primary forest.

Palms of controversies: Oil palm and development challenges” is available for free online by clicking here.

For information about this book, please contact Patrice Levang at

CIFOR’s research on palm oil forms is funded in part by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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Topic(s) :   Oil palm