The Palm oil paradox
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Dan Ryan, a curator at the Eden Project, Cornwall explains the key issues surrounding the production of Palm oil.
Palm oil is one of the world’s most successful foods and ubiquitous products; it’s found in a huge range of food stuffs (often those classed as ‘processed’, which are estimated to be in 60% of supermarket products) and cosmetics, with a diverse set of other applications. It’s also one of the most controversial crops, as its growth is inextricably tied to the destruction and agricultural conversion of rainforests. This brings with it habitat and biodiversity loss, local food scarcity, community displacement and land degradation.
Palm oil is derived from the oil palm Elaeis guineensis that originates in West Africa. Human use of palm oil dates back thousands of years, there is evidence of people being buried with palm oil in ancient Egypt, reflecting the high societal value attached to the product. Today oil palms are mainly grown commercially in SE Asia (particularly Malaysia and Indonesia), Africa and South America.
Below is an aerial image of a palm oil plantation in Indonesia (Figure 3.2.1), illustrating the extent of these plantations and what monoculture looks like:
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Figure 3.2.1. Aerial photo of a palm oil plantation in Indonesia. Photo by adiartana.
Where is oil palm grown?
The growth of oil palm is restricted to a belt of countries in equatorial climate regions. The largest modern day areas of growth are found in Nigeria and Indonesia (see figure 3.2.2).
Figure 3.2.2. Map illustrating the amount of oil palm plantation land coverage in certain countries. Credit Eden Project and FAO. 
The Modern history of Palm Oil
The forests of SE Asia have been plundered since colonial times for their timber and agricultural potential. For decades they were dominated by rubber plantations, but with the arrival of synthetic plastics these plantations began to lose commercial viability. The oil palm industry steadily grew in the latter half of the 20th century due to factors such as population growth, changing diets (to increasingly ‘processed’ foods), and health concerns over animal fats. To growers, palm oil is a super crop. It’s fast growing, high yielding (over 5x its rival vegetable fats, except coconut), and therefore relatively cheap. In some countries with the right land and climate, such as Borneo, the growth of oil palm came with catastrophic effects.
Figure 3.2.3. Extent of deforestation in Borneo 1900–2005, and projections towards 2020. The loss of rainforest in Borneo between 1950 and recent times is largely attributed to the expansion of oil palm monocultures. .
The loss of rainforest in Borneo
Figure 3.2.3 shows loss of Bornean rainforests since the middle of the 20th century. Borneo is shared by Malaysia and Indonesia, two of the main countries involved in the palm oil industry, and home to indigenous peoples, diverse forest landscapes, and extraordinary wildlife. A similar scenario is also being played out on the island of Indonesian Sumatra.
The complexities of palm oil intersect with some of the most important debates of our time. Those relevant to food security include the ‘land spare versus land share’ debate and the ‘food versus fuel’ debate.
Land sharing argues that ‘low yielding’ farming enables biodiversity to be maintained within the agricultural landscape. Land Sparing involves practicing high yielding agriculture, requiring a smaller area of land to attain the same yields, and therefore leaving greater areas of natural habitat untouched. How intensively we use landscapes may prove to be one of the most defining debates of our time and this is no more relevant for any other product than it is for oil palm.
The Food versus Fuel debate is well known, but is still a defining way to frame these issues. As the global community looks to reduce use of fossil fuels, a seemingly sensible approach is to replace petroleum oils with biofuels. Biofuels are a huge category of fuels, which are sometimes made using vegetable oils, such as palm, as the feedstock. If valuable agricultural land, growing palm or other food products, is used for fuel production, what are the potential impacts on food security? Will more land be needed to convert to agriculture to meet this growing demand? People see solutions to various challenges in different ways. Some call for a boycott; a UK supermarket has recently pledged to ban palm oil from its products, while some propose increased support for various schemes that aim to drive sustainability in the supply chain, such as Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
All of these issues are deeply complex. What, for example, would be the impact of replacing palm oil with sunflower oil? Figure 3.2.4 shows the difference in yield between oil palm and other common vegetable oils. Would this require more land to be converted to agriculture in other threatened habitats?
Figure 3.2.4. Yields of vegetable oil (in litres) per hectare of crop.
At the bottom of this page you can find links to related reading that explore the issues discussed here in more detail, should you wish to find out more!
Nellemann C, Miles ., Kaltenborn BP, Virtue M, Ahlenius, H. editors. The Last Stand of the Orangutan: State of emergency: illegal logging, fire and palm oil in Indonesia’s national parks. GRID-Arendal:United Nations; 2007.
Rautner M, Hardiono, M, Alfred RJ. Borneo: Treasure Island at Risk. Status of Forest, Wildlife and related Threats on the Island of Borneo. Frankfurt am Main: WWF; 2005.
Nellemann C, Mile L, Kaltenborn B, Virtue M, Ahlenius H. The Last Stand of the Orangutan: STATE OF EMERGENCY: ILLEGAL LOGGING, FIRE AND PALM OIL IN INDONESIA’S NATIONAL PARKS. 1st ed. [ebook] Arendal: United Nations Environment Program, p.17. [Updated 2007; Accessed 9 Aug. 2018]. Available at: http://www.grida.no/publications/229
Ahlenius H. Extent of deforestation in Borneo 1950-2005, and projection towards 2020. GRID-Arendal. [Updated 2006; Accessed 9 Aug. 2018]. Available at: http://grid-arendal.herokuapp.com/resources/8324
Eden Project. Oil Palm exhibit in the Rainforest Biome – Eden Project, Cornwall. [Updated 2018; Accessed 9 Aug. 2018]. Available at: https://www.edenproject.com/visit/whats-here/rainforest-biome/oil-palm-exhibit
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