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Wanted: A balanced assessment of the ecological impact of all vegetable oils

Further research can round out picture of palm oil impact
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Patrick Fries
Borneo Futures/Patrick Fries

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All too often, bias ingrained into conservationist campaign narratives obfuscates the context in which crops are produced, unjustly vilifying some and celebrating others.

Now, a team of leading international experts is urging that closer scrutiny of the environmental impact of all crops in the context of product and land use is warranted amid growing competition between agricultural demand and biodiversity conservation.

In an article in Nature Plants, which explores the environmental implications of palm oil, Erik Meijaard, Douglas Sheil and David Gaveau – associate scientists with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) – argue that in particular, greater research attention should be paid to the impact and trade-offs of a full range of vegetable oil crops.

The paper, an initiative of the IUCN Oil Palm Task Force, builds on a debate about oil production that was highlighted last year in an article on coconut oil, conservation and consumers in Current Biology.

In it, the authors pointed out that the negative environmental consequences of oil palm on biodiversity are well-publicized, while others – such as coconut oil – are less often discussed, or in some cases unknown.

Currently, 175 million tons of vegetable oil is produced each year, and production is projected to increase more than 75 percent to 307 million tons by 2050 to meet demand.

“People need oils and fats for survival,” said Meijaard, chair of the task force and also managing director of the conservation consultancy company Borneo Futures. “It’s clear that if there’s a choice between animal fats and vegetable oils, for sustainability efforts and diversity, plant derived oil is much better overall.”

What is less commonly known is that oil palm has the advantage of producing very high yields per hectare compared to major competing crops, he said.

Palm, soy and rapeseed oil account for more than 80 percent of vegetable oil production, while sunflower, groundnut, cottonseed, coconut, maize and olive oil make up most of the remaining 20 percent. Together, vegetable oils — which are also used as fuel, in cosmetics, household products and for industrial purposes — make up 30 percent of all cropland worldwide.

Palm and coconut are most productive as oil producers in the humid tropics, while other oil crops grow mainly in subtropical or temperate climates. Palm is also grown profitably in areas where other crops cannot grow, such as in peat or sandy soils.

On the downside, its versatility is responsible for the loss of vast tracts of natural growth tropical forests and woody biomass. Its cultivation in many formerly waterlogged land areas such as tropical peatlands often involves drainage, which increases planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

As in many tropical agricultural systems that involve rotational crop planting, fire is commonly used to clear and prepare land on oil palm plantations, causing billowing smoke plumes. These fires sometimes extend over large regions, exacerbating global warming and harming human and animal health.

On the other hand, economic benefits of oil palm production for forest-dwelling Indigenous Peoples and local communities can be substantial, particularly in regions where few income-generating alternatives exist.

“If you’re living in a remote part of Borneo where the site is basically unsuitable for any other crop, then palm oil is a way that you can see real income opportunities,” said Sheil, who is also a member of the task force and professor at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people somehow think that it’s legitimate to bully palm oil producing countries around — critics tend to demand specific control over lands in tropical countries in ways that they wouldn’t in their own. That approach seems counterproductive.”

While research results on the overall impact of oil palm expansion on forests and biodiversity vary, one survey conducted by the scientists demonstrated that between 1972 and 2015, around 46 percent of new plantations expanded into forests.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) documents that more than 300 animal species are under threat from the cultivation of oil palm. But species threat lists are incomplete because other oil crops have not yet been mapped to adequately measure their impact on forests and biodiversity, while there has been more biodiversity research focus on the perennial crops — oil palm, coconut and olive — than the annuals, such as soy, sunflower and rapeseed, the scientists reported.

“Better information is needed for all oil crops about where they are grown and how their expansion has affected — and could affect — natural and semi-natural ecosystems and biodiversity,” Meijaard said.

Studies have also shown a dramatic range in the scope of plant diversity found in oil palm plantation undergrowth. Scientists suggest this could be because oil palm is a perennial, whereas some other oil crops are annual and undergrowth may not be present in fields or could be tilled more frequently. This agro-ecological value of different crops remains poorly studied.

While much more research is needed into the environmental impact of the full array of vegetable oil producing crops, the scientists recommend that the best solution is a “land-sparing strategy.” This involves maximizing agricultural production on as little land as possible and leaving as much as possible for biodiversity conservation.

Meeting the growing demand for palm oil, while aiming to meet zero deforestation and climate targets, consumer demands for sustainability and international development goals, will require a range of assessments and methods, the scientists said.

Increasing yields in areas currently under production, planting in deforested areas and in degraded open ecosystems such as pasturelands, in addition to “land-sharing strategies” by developing agroforestry systems will be key.

“High-yielding oil palm requires less land to meet demand, but minimizing the overall impact of vegetable oil crops, requires evaluation of their past, current and projected distribution of their impact and review of their yields, global trade and uses,” Meijaard said. “Until more details are known, better planning and governance of land use for all oil crops, will be on hold.”

The large amount information on oil palm in comparison to other vegetable oils is due in part to the controversy swirling around its rapidly growing and wide scale production .

The focus has been on oil palm because of the rapid increase in plantations, often replacing species rich tropical rain forests. Most other crops are expanding more slowly and in places that are less a focus of conservation interest, Sheil said.  

“For example, olives in Europe seem harmless and traditional, as do coconuts on Pacific Islands, but it’s also about the way media attention works: palm oil cultivation threatens the habitats of cute orangutans; campaigns about the worst excesses gather a lot of momentum quickly,” he added. “We know less about the impacts of growing olive and coconut cultivation and the species that are impacted are less familiar and charismatic.”

In addition to further research on all vegetable oils, another area that warrants greater investigation is whether or not oil production actually needs to increase, said Gaveau, who is also a member of the IUCN Oil Palm Task Force.

“The projections that global demand for vegetable oils must increase do not include food waste,” he added. “We need fats and oils to survive and be healthy, but in the United States alone, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 30 to 40 percent of all food is wasted.”

The use of vegetable oils for non-food products and for biofuels is another area which scientists intend to review.

“The pursuit of infinite growth on a finite planet is suicidal,” Gaveau said. “We must diversify to reduce our dependence on industrial agriculture. This means cutting back our consumption patterns and developing a circular economy, which takes all aspects of production and product end-use into consideration to achieve sustainability.” 


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For more information on this topic, please contact David Gaveau at d.gaveau@cgiar.org or Douglas Sheil at d.sheil@cgiar.org.
This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
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