New research shows there is no way to produce sustainable palm oil without deforestation.
Palm oil is a highly versatile vegetable oil and so not surprisingly demand for it is very high worldwide. In one decade alone that global demand almost doubled from 37 million metric tons in 2006 to 64.2 million metric tons in 2016.
The trouble, of course, is that the crop’s cultivation has caused massive deforestation in the two primary sources of pail oil: Indonesia and Malaysia. To make way for more plantations, forest cover is usually removed through slash and burn, which destroys large swathes of precarious ecosystems and wildlife habitats, driving species like orangutans closer to extinction in the wild.
To answer persistent complaints about the environmental destruction wrought by palm oil cultivation, the industry’s major players have been engaging in what they call “sustainable” practices. Producers, retailers, investors and environmental advocates launched the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2004 with guidelines to the industry that were meant to ensure that vital forests were saved in places like Borneo and Sumatra where palm oil is cultivated on vast scales.
Yet, according to a new study, these “sustainable” practices aren’t really that environmentally friendly. Quite the opposite, in fact. Deforestation rates within areas certified as “sustainable” are rising faster than elsewhere, the study’s authors say.
“Oil palms are grown in some of the most sensitive and ecologically important forests in the world. Protecting them is important,” observes Roberto Cazzolla Gatti, a research associate at the Forest Advanced Computing and Artificial Intelligence Lab of the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at Purdue University, who was the lead author of the study.
“But we’ve seen that even when operations are certified as sustainable, there is still significant forest loss,” he adds. “It seems that there is no way to sustainably produce palm oil to meet today’s global demand.”
Gatti and his colleagues perused records from governmental departments and non-governmental organizations, in addition to inspecting satellite data from 2001 to 2016 in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, three of the main producing countries. They found that these nations have lost about 31 million hectares of forest cover, or 11% of their total land cover.
Since 2007, the forest loss has been about 41,000 hectares per year. In areas where sustainable practices are allegedly practiced, more than 38% of the land has been deforested, which is higher than the loss of 34% in areas with sustainability requirements in place. In other words, practices touted as “sustainable” by the industry aren’t environmentally sustainable at all.
“The implication is that there is no reason for companies to claim sustainable palm oil and to use labels for certified products because, in terms of deforestation, there is no significant difference between a certified and a non-certified palm oil plantation. Both need (or needed in the recent past) the complete removal of the original tropical forest,” Gatti stresses.
“Our research shows quite unequivocally that, unfortunately, there is no way to produce sustainable palm oil that did not come from deforestation, and that the claims by corporations, certification schemes and non-governmental organizations are simply ‘greenwashing’, useful to continue business as usual,” Gatti says.
“No shortcuts: if you use palm oil, certified or not, you are definitely destroying tropical forests,” he adds.