A team of leading international experts is calling for closer scrutiny on the environmental impact of the full array of vegetable oil producing crops and not just a select few, to obtain a more balance assessment on their respective ecological impact.
“Too often, bias ingrained into conservationist campaign narratives obfuscates the context in which crops are produced, unjustly vilifying some and celebrating others,” the scientists argued in a blog posted on forestsnews.cifor.org. They added that such a comprehensive assessment for all oil-producing crops was warranted amid the growing competition between agricultural demand and biodiversity conservation.
The blog cited an article in Nature Plants which explored the environmental implications of palm oil, in which Erik Meijaard, Douglas Sheil and David Gaveau – associate scientists with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) – argued 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, 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, the blog said.
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.
Although the 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, oil palm production has also been held responsible for the loss of vast tracts of natural tropical forests. Its cultivation in formerly waterlogged land areas such as in tropical peatlands, often lead to the destruction of its high carbon sequestration capabilities, exacerbating global warming.
“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,” Sheil said.
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, the blog said, but it also added that species threat lists were incomplete because other oil crops have not yet been mapped to adequately measure their impact on forests and biodiversity.
The scientists said that 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.
“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.
While much more research was needed into the environmental impact of all vegetable oil producing crops, the scientists recommended that the best solution was a “land-sparing strategy,” maximizing agricultural production on as little land as possible and leaving as much as possible for biodiversity conservation.
To meet the growing demand for palm oil, while aiming to assure zero deforestation and climate targets, consumer demands for sustainability and international development goals, key would be 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, the scientists said.
“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.
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.”