Life-Cycle Studies: Palm Oil

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Oil palm plantation For the past five years, Worldwatch has explored the history, production method, and environmental and social impacts of everyday products - from chopsticks to pencils - in the Life-Cycle Studies section of its bi-monthly magazine, World Watch. This print-exclusive content is now available for free to Eye on Earth readers. Look for a new study every Friday!

Overview

People have shimmied up the oil palm to reach its prickly red fruit for thousands of years. Native to West Africa, Elaeis guineensis contains two distinct oils used in a variety of dishes. The Industrial Revolution provided a boon for African farmers, who supplied London's cravings for candle making and machine lubricants. Then colonial plantations took over production, and by the 1920s the crop had spread across the Congo Basin and into Central and South America. After European agronomists discovered that the oil palm thrived in Southeast Asia's heavy rains, the crop quickly transformed the island landscapes. By the mid-twentieth century, Malaysia and Indonesia were supplying the world.

Once planted, oil palms can produce fruit for more than 30 years, yielding more oil per hectare than any major oilseed crop. Markets - for margarine, frying oil, soap, lipstick, biofuel, and more - continue their dramatic growth (an additional 2.2 million tons are demanded each year).

Yet plantations often replace tropical forests, killing endangered species, uprooting indigenous communities, and contributing to the release of climate-warming gases. Due mostly to oil palm production, Indonesia emits more greenhouse gases than any country besides China and the United States.

Production

Oil palm pressWith government support, millions of farmers spread across Indonesia and Malaysia's islands in recent decades to establish small oil palm farms, resulting in many violent clashes with local inhabitants. Government-arranged committees often appoint prominent village leaders to work with the industry in dividing community land, and corruption regularly fouls the deals. "They install a divide-and-rule tactic within the communities," said Norman Jiwan, an Indonesian human rights campaigner. He estimates that violent conflicts between oil palm estates and villagers rose from nearly 200 in 2004 to 514 in 2007.

Production methods differ depending on scale and oil palm variety. But the nearly 40 million tons of palm oil produced in 2007 resulted from four identical steps: separate the fruit, soften the flesh, press out the liquid, and purify the oil.

Oil palm plantations have replaced more than 10 million hectares of land in Southeast Asia, mostly lowland tropical forests. Native orangutans may become extinct in central Borneo if plantation growth continues for another two or three years, environmentalists warned in 2008.

Palm-oil biodiesel, once supported as a low-carbon alternative to gasoline, often contributes far more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than it helps to avoid. When each hectare of carbon-rich tropical peatland is drained for oil palm production, an estimated 3,750-5,400 tons of carbon dioxide are released over 25 years, according to peatland ecologist Jack Rieley. By comparison, clearing a hectare of tropical forest releases 500-900 tons of carbon dioxide.

Reducing the Impact

In response to environmental concerns and new restrictions on biofuel enacted by the European Union, the palm oil industry launched the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2004 to improve transparency and environmental responsibility. Yet new plantations can still clear forest not deemed "high-value" for conservation - a term that remains largely undefined. The RSPO plans to create a standard for greenhouse gas emissions, however, based on the original biomass within a forest that a new plantation would replace. Areas with dense, old-growth trees or carbon-rich peat would rank higher on the biomass standard than new growth forests. However, oil palms planted before 2005 are exempted. With seven years needed for the trees to bear fruit, there is little guarantee that palm oil currently certified by the RSPO has been sustainably produced.

Ben Block is the staff writer for World Watch. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

For permission to republish this article, please contact Juli Diamond at jdiamond@worldwatch.org.