Palm Oil I: Friend or foe?

Welcome to this two-part special series on the impacts and production of palm oil. Both of these posts are a collaboration with fellow science blogger Beth from Green Ambition (https://greenambition.co.uk/) so if you enjoy what you read here check out her fantastic site!

Introduction

Over the last decade, palm oil has become the most widely produced and consumed vegetable oil (Hansen et al., 2015). It is used in everything from baking fats, margarine, soap, peanut butter, biscuits, bread, printing ink, food wrapping and agrochemicals (Basiron & Weng, 2004; Obidzinski, 2012). It is the most land efficient of the oils (Rosner, 2018), producing the highest yields compared with soya and rapeseed crops (The Guardian, 2013), and is also around $200 per tonne cheaper as a biofuel than rapeseed oil, which make up 80% of world biodiesel production (Tan et al., 2009).

However, if you were to type “palm oil” into Google, the first page of results are all along a similar vein; 

“Why is palm oil bad?” https://www.transportenvironment.org/

“How the world got hooked on palm oil” https://www.theguardian.com/

“How did palm oil become such a problem?” https://ensia.com/

“How do we go palm oil free?” https://www.bbc.com/ (correct as of 15/02/2020)

While palm oil may be the world’s most efficient oil, it’s value in solving many world problems, such as poverty and food security, is tainted by the environmental impacts of its production. 

In this collaborative article between GreenAmbition and Search for Science, we will consider what it would take to produce palm oil more sustainably and counteract the negative impacts of current agricultural methods. 

Impacts of the palm oil industry

  1. Deforestation and habitat destruction

One environmental impact you may first associate with palm oil is deforestation. According to Mitchard (2018), 30 million hectares of tropical forest were removed from South East Asia (a hotspot for palm oil production) between 2000-2012, with the main drivers being pulp and paper production and palm oil plantations (Mitchard, 2018). Deforestation increases ecological instability, which is particularly devastating considering the high levels of biodiversity in Indonesia’s tropical forests. One highly publicised example of this is the loss of natural habitats for rare, charismatic animals like Asian elephants, Sumatran tigers and orangutans (Tan et al., 2009). In particular, the effects of deforestation on the latter have been eagerly spread by activists and businesses alike. In the run-up to Christmas 2018, Iceland Supermarkets released a controversial (and now banned) TV advert capturing the devastating impact on habitat loss for a cartoon orangutan, to discourage its customers from consuming products containing palm oil.

“converting lowland tropical rainforest to oil palm plantations is estimated to result in a carbon debt of 610 Mg of CO2 ha-1, which would take between 86 to 93 years to repay” – Krystof Obidzinski, Scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) (Obidzinski et al., 2012) 

Aerial view of oil palm plantation | Aerial footage of ...
A palm oil plantation (left) compared with forest (right). Palm oil plantations have far less habitat heterogeneity, and can support a smaller range of species. Source: CIFOR

Peatlands are another vital habitat which has been affected by palm oil plantations. Their anoxia and acidic conditions preserves organic material and prevents decomposition, making them incredible carbon stores. The effect of their disturbance is three-fold: firstly, disturbance to peat releases CO2, contributing 15-25% of all carbon emissions globally (Obidzinski et al., 2012). Methane is also released, a more potent greehouse gas per molecule, further driving rising global temperatures (Mitchard, 2018). Thirdly, degraded ecosystems are also more susceptible to fires which scorch the soil and release further carbon buried in the upper layers: in a single El Niño year, fires in degraded peatland can release up to 2.5 Pg C (Mitchard, 2018). To put that into perspective, this is equivalent to the emissions of 642 coal-fueled power plants for a whole year (United States Environmental protection Agency, 2019).

  1. Pollution

Fertilisers and herbicides used in palm oil plantations can lead to the release of harmful chemicals into waterways and streams (Petrenko et al., 2016): for example, nitrogen loading (eutrophication) can lead to low oxygen concentrations in the water which suffocates fish and other aquatic life (Petrenko et al., 2016). Plantations use a toxic cocktail of chemicals, including insecticides, rodenticides, and herbicides that are hazardous to human health, especially where workers are not adequately protected(Petrenko et al., 2016).

Air pollution is another harmful side effect of the palm oil industry. Oil palm trees can produce volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which react with nitrogen oxides (NOx) to form ozone (Natural Environment Research Council, 2009), a pollutant in the lower atmosphere. Nitrous oxide, in particular, is a potent greenhouse gas which advances climate change. While the concentration of NOx in these areas is still low, at higher concentrations, it could impact crops and endanger food security. Excess nitrogen in fields can cause tall, spindly plants prone to lodging (falling over) in cereals and oilseed rape. It can also delay tuber growth in potatoes and cause high amino acid concentrations in sugar beet (Rees et al., 2013; Natural Environment Research Council, 2009).

  1. Social Impacts

As with many industries, the social implications of palm oil production can be positive or negative, depending on your perspective. According to Basiron & Weng (2004) (whose research is associated with the Malaysian Oil Board), oil palm can be used as a method of poverty eradication in Malaysia, considering the diminishing sales of the two other primary industries for the country, tin and rubber. 

A study by Obidzinski et al. (2012) looked more closely at these social impacts, particularly for biofuel palm plantations, by interviewing a variety of stakeholders across three sites in Indonesia. They found that although it is generally accepted that the oil palm industry drives economic development through providing employment opportunities to rural populations, the benefits are not evenly distributed amongst stakeholders. For example, the introduction of the new industry can cause conflicts between traditional landowners and businesses, food insecurity as a result of prioritisation of oil over food for local people, and even flooding as a result of deforestation. In an area of West Kalimantan, Indonesia, these floods cut local people from their markets and polluted their waters (Obidzinski et al., 2012). The social impacts of the industry are therefore widespread and non-uniform.

Summary

The palm oil industry has a huge influence over global oil supply, but also over land, which often results in environmental problems. This essay has outlined some of the most common problems; deforestation, pollution of water and air, and socioeconomic effects such as poorly distributed employment benefits. Which begs the question: what should I, as a consumer, do about putting pressure on such an industry to change? 

In the second part of this two-part series, we will be looking at a range of actions which can be/are being taken to make the industry more sustainable, from boycotting to certification. Leave a comment if you think we missed anything!

Green Ambition is the fantastic environment-themed blog written by Beth, a biology student. She gives clear and concise overviews of a variety of topics from fairtrade and food security to solutions to our current climate crisis. Check out her work at https://greenambition.co.uk/.

References

Basiron, Y. & Weng, C.K. (2004) The oil palm and its sustainability. Journal of Oil Palm Research, 16(1)

Hansen,S.B., Padfield, R., Syayuti, K., Evers, S., Zakariah, Z. & Mastura, S. (2015) Trends in global palm oil sustainability research. Journal of Cleaner Production, 100, pp.140-149

Hosseini, S. E. & Wahid, M. (2013) Pollutant in Palm OilProduction Process. Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association, 65

Mitchard, E.T.A. (2018) The tropical forest carbon cycle and climate change. Nature 559, pp.527–534 

National Environment Research Council (2009) Palm oil plantations can cause air pollution. [online] Available at: https://nerc.ukri.org/planetearth/stories/561/ (Accessed: 28/02/2020).

Obidzinski, K., Andriani, R., Komarudin, H. & Andrianto, A. (2012) Environmental and social impacts of oil palm plantations and their implications for biofuel production in Indonesia. Ecology and Society, 17(1)

Petrenko, C., Paltseva, J. & Searle, S. (2016) Ecological impacts of palm oil expansion in Indonesia. Washington (US): International Council on Clean Transportation.

Rees, R.M., Baddeley, J.A., Bhogal, A., Ball, B.C., Chadwick, D.R., Macleod, M., Lilly, A., Pappa, V.A., Thorman, R.E., Watson. C.A., & Williams, J.R. (2013) Nitrous oxide mitigation in UK agriculture, Soil Science and Plant Nutrition, 59:1, 3-15

Rosner, H. (2009) Palm oil is unavoidable. Can it be sustainable? National Geographic.

Tan, K.T., Lee, K.T., Mohamed, A.R. & Bhatia, S. (2009) Palm oil: addressing issues and towards sustainable development. Renewable and sustainable energy reviews, 13(2), pp.420-427

The Guardian (2013) Palm oil production: what are the social and environmental impacts? [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/palm-oil-production-social-environmental-impacts (Accessed: 28/02/2020)

United States Environmental Protection Agency (2019) Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator. [online] Available at: https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator (Accessed: 28/02/2020)

Published by avleveri

Hi! I'm Anna, an environmental science graduate from the UK. My main interests (if you can't already tell from my blog posts) are sustainability, consumption, conservation, nutrition, fitness and food! Lots of food.

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