Oil palm: does it have to be a frontier for environmental destruction?

Aerial view of large oil palm plantation in Kalimantan, showing a monoculture, and a large patch of bare earth
Aerial view of large oil palm plantation in Kalimantan (c) Farhan Kudo San

Ben Roberts, Research Postgraduate on Imperial’s President’s scholarship, is researching sustainable palm futures in West Africa. In this blog, he discusses how palm oil production impacts biodiversity, the unrealised potential of palm plantations for agro-diversity conservation, and the role of researchers and consumers in achieving sustainable palm production.

Agricultural palm plantations, such as coconut and oil palm, are coming under increasing scrutiny on environmental issues. These tree crops contribute to products ubiquitous in everyday life, from cosmetics to pet food. It’s hard for us to pass a day without encountering several products containing palm oil. This prevalence is a testament to the extraordinary profitability of palm oil, which has caused production to explode in recent decades; it is now comfortably the most produced vegetable oil worldwide.

Grown in both industrial and smallholder plantations, oil palm landscapes cover the tropics, with hotspots in South-East Asia and a rising presence in sub-Saharan Africa. Global oil palm production now covers around the same land area as Italy. Include coconut palm plantations and that increases to roughly twice the area of the UK. With growing awareness of the climate and biodiversity crises, the staggering area of land devoted to palm plantations – and their eco-environmental impacts – is causing widespread criticism of the industry. But is this justified?

Is oil palm agriculture a frontier of biodiversity destruction?

Structurally complex natural rainforests like this one in West Africa are threatened by palm expansions (c) Jonathan Timperley

Everyone has seen depictions of lonely orangutans clinging to forested islands in a sea of rapidly industrialising landscapes. Certainly, there is truth in that narrative. The habitats that have suffered most from oil palm expansions are tropical rainforests, which harbour unparalleled structural complexity and biodiversity. It is easy to see why replacing these tropical habitats with palm monocultures is a biodiversity disaster: species declines and altered compositions are evident across many groups, from primates to beetles, birds to bacteria.

Not only that, but the diversity needed for the proper functioning of these plantation ecosystems (functional biodiversity), which palm production relies on for services like pest control, is often compromised, threatening long-term production. This is, by definition, unsustainable.

Are palm plantations all bad when it comes to biodiversity?

Paradoxically, palm plantations hold rather high, thus-far unrealised potential for agro-biodiversity conservation. From an agricultural perspective, oil palm is a fantastic crop. In yield per hectare, it is on average seven times more efficient than soybean and five times more efficient than rapeseed, two oil-crop competitors. This yield has caused oil palm to comprise such an important crop in the Global South, providing vital employment and income in smallholder and industrial landscapes. In 2016, oil palm alone contributed to over 3% of Malaysia’s GDP. The task now is reconciling this socioeconomic importance with biodiversity targets.

Oil palm’s efficiency theoretically means that oil yield targets could be met on over five times less land than alternative crops, with more land given over to conservation. Furthermore, compare palm-land to soybean farms, and a striking difference is the crop layer’s physical separation from the ground – palm crops are substantially taller. This, coupled with palm’s long cropping cycle, means that complex habitats can develop underneath productive plantation canopies, benefitting biodiversity. But why is this biodiversity potential unrealised, and why are palm plantations currently “ecological deserts”?

How could research help boost plantation biodiversity?

A lot of research, particularly in South-East Asia, has documented how palm plantations are biologically lacking compared to natural rainforests. Recording these issues is clearly an important starting point in moving towards fixing them, and research outputs have advocated for any further palm expansions to be in low-biodiversity areas, which could minimise their negative impact on global conservation efforts. However, continued research highlighting the detriment of plantations for biodiversity seems to be widening the conflict between conservationists and producers, two groups which should be aligned in reaching “sustainable” production. Narrowing this conflict is vital.

Looking forward, perhaps research effort would be better spent working out how to exploit the biodiversity potential of plantations – i.e. can we alter farming methods in a way that boosts biodiversity in highly productive palm-land? And do so in a way that doesn’t introduce yield gaps, harm farmers’ livelihoods or prompt further agro-expansion? Research is now emerging that assesses how alternative plantation management may boost biodiversity. For example, allowing complex understory habitats to develop under oil palm crops can help plantation populations to recover, including beetles and leopard cats, and increase farm-land ecosystem service provision. Such research is a vital evidence-base for certification schemes favouring sustainable production, including the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), but has thus-far been lacking.

Making small changes like this to the management of palm farmland could transform the double UK-sized mass of oil and coconut palm plantations from ecological deserts to productive, biodiverse farms that contribute substantially to global conservation efforts.

Consumers: is a blanket boycott of palm oil the way forward?

Research has documented eco-environmental issues surrounding palm agriculture so thoroughly that several organisations and individuals have called for consumer palm oil boycotts. However, the intricacies behind decisions like agro-boycotts are complicated – and the potential knock-on impacts must be fully considered.

Imagine for a moment that protestors get their wish and palm oil production ceases. Hereafter, a couple of issues present themselves:

  • It is easy to criticise areas favouring production at nature’s expense, but where are palm-growing communities going to turn to for income?
  • Crucially, what crop will compensate for lost local income and global oil production requirements? Soybean may be a logical alternative, being grown widely in the tropics. However, as discussed, that shift may require seven times more cleared land to achieve oil palm’s yields, with less potential for within-farm biodiversity and carbon stocks. A lose-lose.
  • Many boycotters suggest “palm-free” alternatives to palm oil-containing products. Ironically, many of these contain coconut oil, which also comes from a palm tree. Is coconut palm any better sustainability-wise? It is certainly less widespread, but some have argued that its negative impact on biodiversity may be even greater.

Therefore, in practicing or advocating for blanket palm oil boycotts, it is vital to understand the on-the-ground implications of that decision, and whether the suggested alternatives are feasible.

A coconut monoculture, showing an empty forest floor and lots of uniform trees
A dystopian looking coconut monoculture in Côte d’Ivoire. Space exists below the crop canopy layer in which to introduce habitat complexity (c) Ben Roberts

So, what is the optimal consumer choice?

Clearly, issues surrounding palm sustainability are nuanced. For a start, different plantations have different environmental impacts, so treating all palm oil the same when boycotting may not be desirable or just. Plantations that have developed avoiding areas of high-conservation value or forests with rich carbon stores, that limit chemical use and honour human rights will be far more sustainable than those that burn peat rainforests to establish exploitative palm monocultures. Tools exist to aid consumers in favouring the former – notably, products containing palm oil produced under a set of socio-environmental standards may display certification by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

Although by no means perfect, and in need of expansion and rigorous policing, RSPO certification can help favour less socio-environmentally damaging production. WWF has also produced a scorecard ranking popular companies in retail, manufacturing and hospitality sectors on the sustainability of their palm-use. This accounts for metrics such as commitments to sourcing deforestation-free products, favouring human-rights, and using RSPO-certified palm oil throughout the company’s supply chain. Although no company scores perfectly, a testament to how much is left to achieve, consumers favouring products from the top-end of the spectrum could help move corporations in the direction of sustainability.

Undoubtedly, irresponsible palm oil production is one of biodiversity’s greatest threats. However, palm plantations are an ideal crop in which to introduce habitat and species diversity. Pragmatic research identifying ways to manage palm-land for agro-biodiversity, rather than continuing to compare these systems to pristine rainforests, can help make productive plantations with appreciable biodiversity a reality.

Consumers play a vital role too. To blanket boycott is to equally condemn palm oil both with and without a commitment to sustainability, and could favour alternative oils that are more costly and environmentally damaging. Yet by choosing products with verified sustainability commitments, they can help accelerate the adoption of more sustainable palm oil production systems.

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