energy transition

What is the impact of palm oil cultivation on biodiversity?

In mid-June 2019, Total La Mède's new biorefinery will start producing biodiesel, i.e. around 650,000 metric tons per year, despite the end of the tax niche for palm-oil-based biofuels voted by the government in December 2018. This "biofuel" is produced from palm oil, this "famous" vegetable oil that is a "climate killer": between 1990 and 2010, the exploitation of palm oil would be responsible for the deforestation of more than 9 million hectares in many equatorial regions, mainly in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. According to the NGO Transport & Environment% of the world's palm oil production would go into biodiesel.Palm oil is therefore one of the most widely used vegetable oils, largely because oil palm cultivation is profitable. So what is the impact of oil palm cultivation on biodiversity and how can it become sustainable? A report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), summarized by GreenFacts.
Dince the 1990s, palm oil has become a global product widely used in processed foods, mainly because of its high yield. It is produced from palm trees grown in West Africa and South and Central America, but the largest concentration of oil palm fields is in Indonesia and Malaysia, which account for 85% of global production. Small-scale production players in particular, which produce about 40% of the world's palm oil, are very important in the sector.
The fresh palm fruits are harvested and then crushed to extract the oil from the stone and the flesh of the fruit separately. The stone oil is mainly used for soap and industrial purposes, as well as for processed foods, while the fruit oil is used for food production. A palm oil plantation produces 3.8 tonnes of oil per hectare, compared to 0.8 tonnes of rapeseed oil, 0.7 tonnes of sunflower oil and 0.5 tonnes of soybean oil.
About 75% of the world's production is destined for food products, particularly cooking oils and processed oils and fats (e.g. margarine), but it is also used for the production of biofuels.

What is the impact of palm oil production on biodiversity?

The main direct impact of the development of oil palm cultivation on biodiversity is the loss of habitat caused by deforestation and pre-planting fires. In some parts of the world, up to 50% of deforestation can be attributed to palm oil production. In this context, smallholder plantations tend to have higher diversity than industrial plantations.
Oil palm exploitation
Conflicts between wildlife and humans also tend to increase when oil palm plantations are established, as species such as orangutans and tigers are displaced.
Some species, mainly so-called generalist species such as pigs and some snakes, benefit from oil palm plantations because of the availability of food such as oil seeds for pigs and rodents such as rats and squirrels or for snakes. These species are used by plantation workers as an additional source of income, with pigs being killed for food and snakes for their skin.
However, given the growing demand for vegetable oils and the fact that oil palm produces much more oil than other oil crops for the same area under cultivation, abandoning palm oil may not be the best solution to have a net positive effect on biodiversity. Indeed, it is clear that other crops also have a significant impact on this biodiversity.

Does palm oil production have impacts other than on biodiversity?

Other indirect impacts of palm oil production include greenhouse gas emissions (CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, etc.) related to deforestation, the use of fire to clear land, water quality, freshwater species diversity, invasive species associated with oil palm, pests, and the fallout and secondary impacts of hunting.

What can be done to mitigate the impact of palm oil on biodiversity?

The main strategy used to mitigate the impact of oil palm cultivation has been to address the loss of natural forests and peatlands, with measures ranging from government regulation to voluntary actions. The expansion of oil palm, without taking biodiversity into account, is not compatible with international biodiversity policies and the direct links between weaknesses in land governance, including corruption and collusion over oil palm development permits, are well established.
A number of measures can be taken to offset and minimize the anticipated negative impact; they include :
- avoidance: reducing the impact before it happens so that it is not as severe ;
- restoration: on-site restoration of biodiversity following an impact ;
- compensation: replacing lost resources or providing alternatives and ensuring a net positive impact.
Voluntary certification schemes exist, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. (1), which oblige producers to avoid clearing primary forests, protect rivers, avoid fires and combat pollution. Over the past decade, as public awareness of the problem of deforestation has increased, companies have made a "no deforestation" commitment and the palm oil industry is one of the sectors with the highest level of commitment, with half of the companies having such a commitment. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) (2) has also established intergovernmental targets directly relevant to oil palm and biodiversity.
Governments of producing countries have also reacted to international debates on oil palm and deforestation. There may be policies in countries where oil palm is grown, such as the moratorium on deforestation in Indonesia, or in palm oil importing countries, such as the Amsterdam Declaration. (3), that support a fully sustainable supply chain.

What is the future of palm oil?

Global demand for vegetable oil is increasing rapidly. Demand in 2050 is expected to be double what it was in 2008, with 310 million tonnes, compared to about 165 million tonnes in 2013. It is possible to increase the yield of current production by improving the management or use of more productive varieties, for example, but this does not necessarily mean that there will not be more land development and conversion, as palm oil production is a lucrative business for investors.
There is still room for oil palm cultivation in Africa and South America, where production is still relatively low, but the environmental impact of expanding oil palm plantations in these regions remains underestimated.

What are the main gaps in our knowledge about the impacts of palm oil production?

The most important gaps that require further research are as follows:
- the socio-cultural and economic impacts of oil palm development ;
- the spatial distribution of the different oilseed crop plants ;
- modeling past oil palm expansion to understand the constraints and model future expansion ;
- the impact of large-scale expansion on local climate and water resource management ;
- the costs and benefits of optimal biodiversity management for producers ;
- how species survive and move through oil palm landscapes;
- characterization of the biodiversity value of traditional oil palm production, the feasibility and productivity of small-scale systems and the conservation benefits of these systems.
Source : IUCN (2018) - Summary & Details : GreenFacts

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