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​Balancing trade-offs for sustainable oil-palm production – new publication in Nature Plants by ASE Asst Profs Eleanor Slade and Janice Lee 

Published on: 08-Dec-2020

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Palm oil is used in more products than most consumers can imagine, from cookies and pizza dough to makeup, soap, animal feed, and biodiesel – the list could go on. The oil palm industry has gained a bad reputation from the large environmental impacts of its production, particularly the effects of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, where 90% of global palm oil is produced. On the other hand, palm oil has very high yields per land area compared to other vegetable oils such as rapeseed and soy, accounting for ~40% of global vegetable oil demand but produced from an area of only  5.5% of the total global area for growing oil crops.

The new review article in Nature Plants, co-authored by ASE Asst Prof Eleanor Slade and Asst Prof Janice Lee, provides environmental, social, and economic context to the thorny issue of vegetable oil production in Southeast Asia and globally. The demand for vegetable oils is growing rapidly (a 46% growth is expected by 2050), but oil palm production remains strongly linked to loss of biodiversity, food security, and climate change, not to mention haze and air pollution. Finding ways of making production more sustainable is a global priority stressed by the Oil Palm Task Force and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

"When it comes to the end use, vegetable oils are mostly interchangeable – but they differ in how productive they are and in their impacts on the environment. For instance, average yields for oil palm per unit area are several times those of rapeseed, soy, groundnut, cotton, coconut or sunflower. This implies that, if palm oil continues to play a dominant role in overall oil production, an additional 35.7 million hectares of oil plantations could meet the projected demand in 2050. This would mean an 8% increase in land use. If on the other hand, the less productive soy were used to meet this demand, an additional 204 million hectares of tropical and subtropical land would be needed, or a 48% increase compared to now", said Professor Douglas Sheil of the Norwegian University of Life Science, a co-author on the study.

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Figure by Wageningen University

While industrial oil palm production by large companies often comes with various social problems such as land conflicts and labour exploitation, small-holder production can bring considerable livelihood improvements and economic development to local villages. In contrast to most other vegetable oils, for example rapeseed and soy, palm oil grows best in the humid tropics, and its highest yields are in Southeast Asia, bringing significant economic benefits to the region. While much is now known about the environmental, societal and economic trade-offs in the production of palm oil, there has been little research on alternative oil crops, hindering discussions on their comparative sustainability.  

"All crops come with trade-offs in terms of environmental and social impact. The better we understand these trade-offs on a local and global scale, the more sustainably we can meet the demand for agricultural commodities, which is key to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals", said Thomas Brooks, IUCN Chief Scientist and a co-author of the study.


Find the original publication here: The environmental impacts of palm oil in context

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