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 Anna from Search for Science so if you enjoy what you read here check out her site!
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; 18]. 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?”
“How the world got hooked on palm oil”
“How did palm oil become such a problem?”
“How do we go palm oil free?”
(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 Michard (2018), 30 million hectares of tropical forest was removed from South East Asia (the palm oil-growing hotspot) between 2000-2012, with the main drivers being pulp and paper production and palm oil plantations [Michard, 2018]. This deforestation comes with increased 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 and Sumatran tigers [Tan et al., 2009]. In particular, the effects of deforestation for palm oil plantations on orangutans 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]
Peatlands are another vital habitat which has been affected by palm oil plantations. Through holding organic material and preventing decomposition with their acidic and anoxic conditions, peatlands are incredible carbon stores. Conversion to forests disturbs this peat, releasing CO2; such land conversion on a global scale contributes 15-25% of all carbon emissions [Obidzinski et al., 2012]. Carbon is also lost from degraded peatlands in the form of methane (CH4), which is a more potent greenhouse gas per molecule, and drives rising global temperatures [Michard, 2018]. 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 [Michard, 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].
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. In particular, Paraquat is often used in plantations, with the predominantly female workforce being exposed to this dangerous compound, potentially causing health conditions where workers are not adequately protected [Petrenko et al., 2016]. Aside from agrochemicals used during the growth of the plantations, Palm oil mill effluent (POME) is produced as a byproduct during wet extraction of palm oil. Not only can POME contaminate waterways and endanger aquatic species, but it can also release CO2 into the atmosphere [Hosseini & Wahid, 2013].
Aside from its aquatic impacts, palm oil production can also pollute the air. 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 will advance global warming. 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]. Eventually, the increased NOx would cause detriment to the plantations themselves [Natural Environment Research Council, 2009].
3. 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 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!
Search for Science is an environment-based blog run by Anna, a Masters in Environmental Sciences Student in the UK. Her blog covers themes of land management, conservation, veganism, sustainability and food security – popular articles include “Veganuary: going cold tofu on meat and dairy” and “What makes a sustainable diet?”. Check it out!
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 cleanerProduction, 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. The tropical forest carbon cycle and climate change. Nature 559, 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, December 2018.
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.
TheGuardian (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)