The environmental impact of palm oil

You may have questions about palm oil and sustainability. We’ve collected some of the most frequently asked questions and answers and linked to qualified resources.

Is palm oil sustainable for the environment?

Oil palms can form part of a sustainable ecosystem. Like with all crops variety is important. Palm oil is important for meeting the globally rising demand for food and there is increasing evidence that, when it is produced sustainably, palm oil is also contributing to preserving ecosystems. Oil palms supply 35% of the global demand for vegetable oil on 10% of the world’s land under oil crop cultivation.

Producing the same amount of an alternative oil such as soybean or sunflower oil would require five to ten times more land and further increase pressure on natural habitats. Oil palms require smaller amounts of pesticides and fertilisers than other vegetable oil crops such as soybeans. Replacing oil palms with other vegetable oil crops would increase demand for land and further jeopardize biodiversity and increase greenhouse gas emissions. For more information, click here.

Is palm oil responsible for deforestation in Indonesia?

Recent studies show: Expansion of oil palm plantations has been an important driver of deforestation during the past two decades. In the period of 2001 to 2019 expansion of oil palm plantations contributed almost one third to total forest conversion. Particularly between 2005 and 2012 large-scale oil palm plantations were responsible for most of the area of deforestation. This largely overlaps with the period that NGOs started campaigning to stop deforestation for palm oil. However, satellite data shows that there is a clear decline in deforestation in Indonesia since 2016.

In 2021 the palm oil-related deforestation rate in Indonesia and Malaysia was at the lowest level in 20 years. This decline is in line with the 2015 ‘No Deforestation No Peat and No Exploitation’ cutoff date set by many companies. According to research from Satelligence, palm-driven deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia keeps declining despite strongly increasing palm oil prices since 2019. The research of Satelligence shows that the following reasons are not the cause of the decrease in deforestation rate:

  • production volume decrease – because the production volume is actually increasing;
  • decreasing (EU) demand – because (EU) demand is not decreasing;
  • ‘there is hardly any forest left to deforest – because actually there is still around’ 20-70% forest remaining inside concessions.

Satelligence data also shows that while the public perception in the EU is that palm oil causes most deforestation, in reality cattle, soy and timber & pulp have higher deforestation rates. Due to the focus on palm oil in the past decades, the palm oil sector is actually ahead of other sectors in deforestation-related commitments. For more information, see the SPOC webinar with data from Satelligence, our 2022 impact story, and the SPOC blog from 2021.

How can sustainable palm oil protect orangutans?

Palm oil is often associated with biodiversity loss. We all know those pictures where orangutans are rescued from destroyed areas and brought to sanctuaries or translocated elsewhere. It is very important that oil palm plantations do not destroy rainforest but contribute to the conservation of nature. The single-most important thing we can all do to save orangutans is demand sustainable palm oil.

Orangutans live only on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo in Indonesia and Malaysia. The conditions which make the habitat ideal for orangutans are the same conditions which make the region ideal for the cultivation of oil palm: a tropical climate with plenty of rain. And it just so happens that these two countries account for more than 85% of the global production of palm oil. As a result, outside of protected areas, orangutan habitat has been hugely fragmented by the expansion of oil palm.

How are we to save the orangutan given these circumstances? To address complex issues successfully, it is important that research and science play a part. Understanding precisely where orangutans and oil palm overlap and how orangutans behave and adapt to these fragmented landscapes is critical to developing sustainable and impactful solutions. Research shows that large terrestrial species like orangutans and elephants that find themselves in selectively logged, secondary forests need 3 things to survive: sufficient food resources, space to move and find mates, and to not be killed.

Where does sustainable palm oil fit in? To begin with, under RSPO, growers are not permitted to clear forests or develop on peatlands. Orangutans thrive in peatland swamp forests. Growers are also required to conserve or enhance areas of High Conservation Value (which includes the presence of rare, threatened or endangered species like the orangutan.) Additionally, growers are responsible for ensuring that rare, threatened or endangered species not be captured, harmed or killed. PONGO Alliance is a platform that demonstrates that growers can, in fact, create safe havens with abundant food sources and forest corridors to improve connectivity for species like the orangutan.

When consumers demand sustainable palm oil, they send a message to brands and retailers that they expect that the products they buy do not contribute to deforestation and biodiversity loss. And when these brands and retailers follow through with committing to sourcing only sustainable palm oil, they contribute to the survival of the orangutan.

For the full story, click here.

Why is sustainable palm oil good for the rainforest?

Sustainably produced palm oil can help to protect rainforests. Oil palms supply 35% of the global demand for vegetable oil on just 10% of the world’s land under oil crop cultivation.

As such it is a very efficient crop. Producing the same amount of an alternative oil such as soybean or sunflower oil would require five to ten times more land and further increase pressure on natural habitats. Oil palms require smaller amounts of pesticides and fertilisers than other vegetable oil crops such as soybeans.

Replacing oil palms with other vegetable oil crops would increase demand for land and further jeopardize biodiversity and increase greenhouse gas emissions.

For more information, click here.

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