Palm oil is a versatile vegetable oil that is in high demand worldwide. Palm oil can be used in a wide range of products from margarine to shampoos and from biofuel to cosmetics. Palm oil accounts for a third of the world’s vegetable oil and is consumed by half the planet’s population in one form or another.
There’s a cost to that ubiquity, however. The mass cultivation of oil palms has inflicted massive harm on the environment in Malaysia and Indonesia, which together account for 85% of global palm oil production.
Vast tracks of virgin forest have been felled in Borneo and Sumatra to make way for oil palm plantations. These forests were once home to thriving ecosystems which are now gone. Hundreds of endangered species from Malayan tigers to Bornean orangutans have been pushed closer to the edge of extinction because of habitat loss.
In January this year, European lawmakers approved a new energy plan for the 28-member European Union that included an impeding ban on the use of palm oil in motor fuels on the continent from 2021 onwards. France’s Minister of Environment Nicholas Hulot explained that the European nation would move towards restricting the use of palm oil in biofuels in the country so as to try and lessen demand for palm oil, which is causing massive deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia.
There’s a bit of a problem, though, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which has just published a new study on the feasibility of weaning the planet off palm oil.
The environmental harm from palm oil cultivation in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia is undeniable. However, the IUCN notes, alternative oil crops such as soy, corn and rapeseed require up to nine times as much land to cultivate as oil palm. Switching to these alternative crops on a mass scale could lead to massive deforestation and wildlife habitat destruction elsewhere, such as in South America.
“When you consider the disastrous impacts of palm oil on biodiversity from a global perspective, there are no simple solutions,” Inger Andersen, IUCN director general, has warned. “If we ban or boycott it, other, more land-hungry oils will likely take its place.”
What is needed, Andersen said, is “concerted action to make palm oil production more sustainable, ensuring that governments, producers and the supply chain honour their sustainability commitments.”
The truly sustainable cultivation of oil palms remains out best option, the IUCN says.