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Is It Possible to Produce Palm Oil in a Sustainable Way?

Ask a Scientist - February 2014

A. Hansen, of Asbury, NJ, asks "I was wondering if all palm oil contributes to deforestation or if it’s possible to produce it in a more environmentally sustainable way," and is answered by Calen May-Tobin, an analyst in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Tropical Forests and Climate Initiative.  

The short answer is no and yes. Not all palm oil contributes to deforestation, and it can be produced sustainably.

Palm oil, which comes from the fruit of oil palm trees, is a great crop for a number of reasons. The trees are perennial, so farmers don’t have to clear their land every year. The trees store a lot more carbon than crops that have to be replanted annually. And their fruit, which contains 50 percent oil, has much higher yields than other vegetable oils. Farmers can produce five to eight times more palm oil for a given area of land than its vegetable oil competition.

But, as you point out, too often the land used for palm oil trees comes at the expense of tropical forests. Globally, palm oil covers an area larger than the state of Georgia, and about 60 percent of that area is in just two countries, Indonesia and Malaysia. It’s estimated that in those two countries 40 percent to 80 percent of the palm oil plantations were established by clearing forests.

Cutting down intact forests for palm oil plantations is incredibly destructive. Palm oil plantations provide habitat for only about 15 percent of the animal species found in pristine forests, which include orangutans, rhinoceroses, and tigers. Clearing a tropical forest also releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide, the leading global warming gas, into the atmosphere. Scientists estimate that the forest land cleared in Indonesia alone for palm oil plantations over the last decade emitted about as much carbon dioxide pollution as 45 million to 55 million cars.

Fortunately, there are ways to produce more palm oil without harming forests. The first is to increase yields on existing palm oil plantations. There is a huge range in yield between the least- and most-productive plantations, so if farmers closed that gap they would produce more oil without using more land. Second, when palm oil plantations expand on to new land, it’s possible for them to move into areas that aren’t forested. For instance, in Brazil farmers are establishing new palm oil plantations on old cattle pastures.

To learn more about how farmers can produce palm and other vegetable oils without destroying tropical forests, check out our report Recipes for Success: Solutions for Deforestation-Free Vegetable Oils.

Calen May-Tobin,  Palm Oil Campaign Analytic Lead and Policy Advocate, is trying to devise ways to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint. Calen also conducts analyses for UCS’s Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative on a range of issues, including illegal logging, soil degradation, and land-use policy. Prior to joining UCS, Calen worked for the Society for Conservation Biology. Calen holds a M.S. in ecology from the University of California, Irvine.

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