Forests and agriculture | Opinion

A new deforestation threat from palm oil?

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Supply pressures may mean ever-more plantations

Research suggests that while deforestation pressures from palm oil in existing production areas are lessening, the industry may expand elsewhere

The 2015 forest fires that wracked Indonesia – the worst for some 20 years – helped push the country’s plantation industries into the global spotlight. Decades of forest and peatland destruction, fuelled in large part by an ever expanding and ambitious palm oil sector, has helped move the debate as to the true impact of palm oil production more into the mainstream.

But understanding the true cause, and identifying those that ought to be held responsible for such widespread environmental destruction, is no easy task.

A new report, from academics at Duke University and elsewhere, published by PLOS ONE, aims to provide a more accurate picture of palm oil driven deforestation, visualising how landscapes across southeast Asia and South America have changed during the past 25 years.

Hi-res data

Using a combination of high-resolution imagery from Google Earth and Landsat, the study assesses sample areas to find where oil palm plantations have recently replaced forests in 20 countries – and where the same might most likely happen next.

Many of the nations with high levels of deforestation for oil palm in the recent past also have unprotected forests covering much of their regions suitable for palm oil. However, not all countries with such vulnerable forests – in Africa and central America for example – have seen recent palm oil related deforestation. It is a situation the report’s co-author Varsha Vijay describes as both “alarming and a reason for hope: there is a threat of continued deforestation from oil palm expansion, but it is not too late to act to prevent it”.

Vijay’s findings of “high rates of forest loss for palm oil production” – and the fact that almost all of the forests are incredibly rich in biodiversity – should be a renewed wake up call to the palm oil sector and its buyers.

Progress? Slow

As suggested in Greenpeace’s latest scorecard on corporate efforts to ensure the palm oil in their products – from biscuits to toothpastes – did not contribute to deforestation, scant progress is being made. While praising Ferrero and Nestlé, it was less than kind to the likes of PepsiCo, Colgate-Palmolive and Johnson & Johnson, saying that most of the 14 companies studied were “unable even to say how much of their palm oil comes from suppliers that comply with their own sourcing standards”.

Despite recent criticisms of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the body that orchestrates the buying and selling of certified palm oil, it remains the go-to method for many companies for delivering on corporate promises. Organisations such as the Consumer Goods Forum – whose 400 member companies have collectively promised to achieve net zero deforestation by 2020 – also have a role to play.

Companies do stand their ground, of course. Johnson & Johnson defends its position, for example, by pointing to its responsible palm oil sourcing criteria and its work with TFT and some of its suppliers to share supply chain information and assess compliance with standards that “prohibit development in high carbon stock forests, peatlands and burning as a method to clear land for new developments or to re-plant”.

While refusing to work with suppliers for non-compliance with its standards has become common practice among the larger buyers, some of the leaders are putting more emphasis on supplier engagement, working with those on the ground to find solutions together.

The yield solution

The Singaporean palm oil business Golden Agri Resources, for example, is working to improve the yield of smallholder farmers. “On our own estates we can achieve a yield of 5.7 tonnes of oil palm per hectare. But when it comes to the independent farmers that supply us, they can only get between one and three tonnes per hectare,” says Anita Neville, GAR’s vice-president for external affairs, (in a podcast with Innovation Forum). “If we can double those yields, we can stop one million hectares of additional land being opened up and avoiding deforestation.”

But it is only by knowing exactly where palm oil comes from that organisations can be absolutely sure it has been produced without loss of forest. Local regulatory enforcement and improved monitoring of tree loss are necessary accompaniments to such voluntary market initiatives – and not just in Indonesia and Malaysia either.

Together, these two nations account for around 80% of global oil palm production – and, as such, this is where most on-the-ground NGO engagement between local authorities, plantation owners, farmers and corporations has taken place.

However, due to shifting climatic conditions and soil potential, the area for expansion is limited across southeast Asia and future growth for palm oil plantations is likely to come from other regions, such as in Africa and central America, according to Vijay’s study. If so, it’s here that palm oil buyers will need to focus to keep new deforestation risks from their supply chains.

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