Because of the strong demand for palm oil, cultivation of oil palms has expanded more in the past ten years than cultivation of any other crop. The land-use changes that this entails and the resulting environmental impacts have therefore attracted considerable debate among policy-makers, scientists and the general public. There are indeed clear grounds for criticising the production of palm oil – rainforest loss, CO2 emissions and human rights violations are just some of the adverse impacts of plantation expansion that need to be set against the many positive properties of this booming commodity.
Because oil palms grow only in a tropical climate, large areas of rainforest are often felled to make way for palms – with greenhouse gases being released as a result of slash-and-burn. The problem is particularly acute in Indonesia and Malaysia, which produce around 85 per cent of the world’s palm oil. In Indonesia some 1.7 million hectares of rainforest were felled in 2015 alone. It is estimated that around 50 per cent of deforestation in Indonesia in the first decade of the millennium was attributable to palm oil. As a result, Indonesia is losing its rainforest faster than any other country in the world. Because of the shortage of fallow but potentially usable land in South-East Asia, investors and palm oil companies are increasingly turning to West Africa – where the oil palm originated – and Latin America as places in which to expand production.
As a result of rainforest destruction, palm oil is playing a significant part in the extinction of species. The orang-utan and many other species are under threat. For example, researchers at Queen Mary University of London found that the constant fragmentation and destruction of virgin forest for the creation of plantations is having disastrous consequences for bats. It is not only the diversity of species but also the genetic diversity within a species that is being lost, as findings published in the journal ‘Ecology Letters’ have shown (Ecology Letters, 2013).
Destruction of the rainforest increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. To make way for palm oil plantations, the forest is often cleared by slash-and-burn. This releases large quantities of carbon dioxide, especially from peatlands. NASA experts calculate that between August and October 2015 alone, these fires released up to 600 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – a quantity roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of Germany. As a result, Indonesia’s emissions total three billion tonnes per year, making it the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases; only the USA and China emit more.
Slash-and-burn and the accompanying air pollution often have a direct impact on the health of local communities. In 2015 the smog that was created by the burning of the Indonesian rainforest was so thick that warnings of dangerous levels of air pollution were issued in Malaysia and Singapore. In November of that year, for example, the fires meant that the amount of particulate matter in the air in the Thai city of Songkhla was 365 micrograms per cubic metre – far in excess of the EU limit of 50 micrograms.
Reports from the plantation areas – especially in Indonesia – reveal that palm oil production often involves large-scale violation of human rights in the form of poor working conditions, social injustice and conflicts over land. Plantation workers and their families frequently live on the palm oil plantations, with no contact with life in the outside world. This makes it particularly important to ensure that, for example, children living on the plantations have access to education and the workers receive a minimum wage. Indigenous peoples are often affected by oil palm cultivation: they may be evicted from their land and deprived of their livelihood. According to the Indonesian human rights commission, Komnas HAM, around 30 per cent of the 5,000 violations of human rights that were reported in Indonesia in 2010 were connected with the cultivation of palm oil (Brot für die Welt, 2011).
Despite the challenges, growing oil palms is not a bad thing in itself. The oil palm has the highest yield of any oil plant – it is also the only crop that yields two different oils that are useful to industry: palm oil and palm kernel oil. Oil palms occupy the smallest proportion of all the land that is used for oil and fat production while at the same time accounting for the largest proportion of worldwide oil production – 32 per cent. Sunflowers, coconut and soybeans all have a yield per hectare that is on average just one-third that of palm oil. Replacing palm oil with other vegetable oils would therefore not have the required effect, but would merely displace the problem and in some cases even make it worse. For example, soybeans and coconut grow in the same sensitive regions or in ecologically similar ones. Growing them would need more land; more greenhouse gas would be produced and more species would be put at risk. And the most important European vegetable oil, rape oil, would not be able to meet the rising global demand for plant-based oils. The high land efficiency of oil palms means that they have an important part to play in meeting the growing global demand for vegetable oils.
If palm oil production is to be sustainable, it is particularly important that conversion of the land used for plantations does not impact adversely on the environment. Compliance with the principles of good agricultural practice is one of the pillars of sustainable cultivation. To minimise the risk of carbon emissions, oil palms should be grown only on fallow and agriculturally usable land. Ensuring that this is the case is the responsibility of governments in the producer countries, which must address the problem of land use. Producers and consumers throughout the supply chain must also play their part. To enable Europe to pioneer the use of certified palm oil, demand for sustainable palm oil must be increased. This creates incentives for producers to expand sustainable production.
Palm oil production is important to the economies of producer countries. The international trade in palm oil brings them valuable foreign currency. In addition, the non-mechanised harvesting of the palm fruit, which can be performed about 15 times a year, creates large numbers of jobs – many of them in rural and structurally weak regions.
However, it is also important that agricultural workers are paid a minimum wage and that international labour law is observed. It is also essential to involve and support the smallholders who produce the majority of the world’s palm oil, and to prohibit child labour on the plantations
Oil palms are grown both on large plantations and on small family farms. Achieving the highest possible yield with the minimum detriment to nature is the challenge of sustainable cultivation. In response to international criticism of practices in the palm oil industry, various certification schemes have been set up in recent years. They include the first and most widely used scheme, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), as well as others such as the Rainforest Alliance, International Sustainability & Carbon Certification (ISCC) and the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB).
The aim of these schemes is to make oil palm cultivation more sustainable by imposing a variety of standards and criteria, thereby reducing rainforest clearance, slash-and-burn and human rights violations in the palm oil industry. The sustainability criteria set by the certification systems ensure that the basic rights of indigenous landowners, local communities, plantation workers and smallholders and their families are respected and considered. Certification schemes contribute to greater transparency in the value chain and help to strengthen the dialogue on sustainable palm oil.
A further aim is to significantly restrict the use of pesticides by smallholders and plantation owners. In addition, certification schemes specify that no rainforest areas or areas of high conservation value should be cleared to make way for new plantations; mills and farms must reduce their environmental impacts to a minimum. Accompanying measures such as organising training sessions for smallholders, supporting the establishment of organisations and involving governments are another important activity of certification systems in developing and emerging countries.