The deforestation it causes is decimating species such as orangutans and tigers – but the alternatives could be worse, finds authoritative report
It is consumed daily by billions of people but palm oil is “disastrous” for wildlife such as orangutans and tigers, according to an authoritative new report. However, the analysis warns that alternatives are likely to drive biodiversity losses elsewhere, rather than halt them.
The analysis, from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), found that rainforest destruction caused by palm oil plantations damages more than 190 threatened species on the IUCN’s red list, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia. It also found that palm oil certified as “sustainable” is, so far, only marginally better in terms of preventing.
However, alternative oil crops, such as soy, corn and rapeseed, require up to nine times as much land and switching to them could result in the destruction of wild habitat in other parts of the world, such as Brazil and Argentina, the report warns. It recommends stronger action to ensure new palm oil plantations do not cause forests to be felled.
Palm oil provides a third of the world’s vegetable oil, from 10% of the land used for all oil crops. It is used in a huge range of food products and eaten by half the world’s population, with a quarter of production used in cosmetics, cleaning products and as biofuel.
“When you consider the disastrous impacts of palm oil on biodiversity from a global perspective, there are no simple solutions,” said Inger Andersen, IUCN director general. “If we ban or boycott it, other, more land-hungry oils will likely take its place.”
“Palm oil is here to stay and we urgently need concerted action to make palm oil production more sustainable, ensuring that governments, producers and the supply chain honour their sustainability commitments,” she said. Deforestation for palm oil frequently takes place despite legal bans.
The new report from the IUCN Oil Palm taskforce estimates the total area of industrial scale palm oil plantations at 18.7m hectares, with smallholder plantations taking the total to 25m hectares, equivalent to the area of the UK.
Despite the controversy over palm oil, there are no easy solutions, said Erik Meijaard, the IUCN report’s lead author. “Palm oil is decimating south-east Asia’s rich diversity of species as it eats into swaths of tropical forest,” he said. But, quoting US writer HL Mencken, he added. “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
One issue is that it is often easier to cut down virgin forest for new plantations, rather than deal with the complicated ownership issues that come with already degraded land. Another is that while some communities can benefit from plantations, as Indonesian and Malaysian governments argue, other communities can suffer.
Furthermore, plantations are often created in poor locations, meaning yields are low. “A lot of oil palm planting seems to be dumped in places wherever people can get hold of land,” said Meijaard. “There needs to be pressure on countries like Malaysia and Indonesia to start seriously looking at how to optimise this sector.”
Sustainable certification is intended to demonstrate that palm oil has not caused deforestation but is currently poor, according to Meijaard: “Certification is nowhere near as good as it should be. But [we] still think it is needed as the only objective way we can judge whether palm oil adheres to certain principles. The [certification body] needs to step it up and improve.”
A spokeswoman for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which certifies almost 20% of all palm oil, said: “While we acknowledge that the certification system is not perfect, it has made a real contribution against deforestation.” RSPO said it was currently strengthening its standards.
Arguments over palm oil have been bitter with the most recent flare-up occurring over the European Union’s decision to ban palm oil from use as biofuel, though not until 2030. In the run up to the decision, Malaysian minister Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong warned of a multi-billion dollar trade war: “Don’t expect us to continue buying European products.”
Malaysia also called a recent academic paper on huge orangutan declines “hyperbolic and media reports on it “fake news”. “We’ve come to expect nothing less from our opponents in Europe and the environmental minions who do their bidding,” said the Malaysian Palm Oil Council.
Richard George, at Greenpeace UK, said: “Time and time again we’ve caught RSPO members destroying forests for palm oil, including trashing orangutan habitat. If the RSPO wants to have a future, it must adopt ‘no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation’ standards and ensure they are rigorously enforced.”