Demand for ‘sustainable’ palm oil ravages forests

Demand for palm oil has surged in the past decade and deforestation is rising in major oil palm-producing countries—most notably in areas certified as “sustainable.”

Food, biofuels, and cosmetics all contain palm oil. It’s cheap and has enjoyed a “good-for-you” reputation. Global usage went for 37 million metric tons in 2006 to 64.2 million in 2016.

“Oil palms are grown in some of the most sensitive and ecologically important forests in the world. Protecting them is important,” says Roberto Cazzolla Gatti, research associate at the Forest Advanced Computing and Artificial Intelligence Lab of the forestry and natural resources department at Purdue University.

“But we’ve seen that even when operations are certified as sustainable, there is still significant forest loss. It seems that there is no way to sustainably produce palm oil to meet today’s global demand.”

It’s not working

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), formed by retailers, banks, investors, and environmental advocates in 2004, and the Palm Oil Innovation Group, a similar organization founded in 2013, developed guidelines that allow for sale of palm oil as sustainable. That label means ensuring that forest conservation value is assessed and steering clear of high-carbon stock areas.

Those efforts are not effective, Gatti says.

Based on records from governmental departments and non-governmental organizations, as well as satellite data from 2001-2016, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea have lost about 31 million hectares of forest cover. That’s about 11 percent of their total land cover.

Since 2007, the forest loss has been about 41,000 hectares per year. More than 38 percent of the deforested land is in areas that require sustainable practices. That compares to 34 percent where there is no sustainability requirement.

“If you need to produce palm oil, you need to remove forest,” Gatti says. “That’s what we’re seeing.”

That removal often includes slashing and burning, which pollutes the environment, emits greenhouse gases, and can negatively affect human health.

Orangutan homes

Further, deforestation threatens habitats for many plants and animals, in particular, for the three remaining species of orangutan on the planet.

While palm oil is cheap and requires less land to produce than many alternatives, the negatives are impossible to ignore, Gatti says.

“We should be conscious of our use of products with palm oil and consider alternatives such as rapeseed, canola, flaxseed, and sunflower. We lived for many centuries without palm oil. We can certainly do it again.”

Additional coauthors are from Purdue and from Tomsk State University in Russia. The study appears in Science of the Total Environment.

Source: Purdue University