Study shows how palm oil production can be sustainable

A just-published study showing palm oil can be sustainable should be welcomed by the New Zealand dairy industry and the farmers who use PKE (Palm Kernel Expeller), a waste product from palm oil production, as supplementary feed.

PKE, a low value by-product of the palm industry, is not the main reason palm fruit is harvested. About 98% of the value of palm oil production comes from the oil.

The new study, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, says land used for palm oil production could be nearly doubled without expanding into protected or high-biodiversity forests.

The study is the first to map land suitable for palm oil production on a global scale, while taking into account environmental and climate considerations.

“There is room to expand palm oil production and to do it in a sustainable way,” says International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis researcher Johannes Pirker, who led the study.

Palm oil production has burgeoned from 6 million hectares in 1990 to 16 million in 2010, an area about the size of Uruguay. The oil, used for cooking and as a food additive, now accounts for about 30% of all vegetable oil used worldwide.

But palm oil is controversial, particularly because much of this expansion came at the expense of biodiversity – rich tropical forests have been cut to make room for new plantations. On the other hand, oil palm farming has also contributed to lifting millions of people out of poverty in Indonesia and Malaysia, the top palm oil producing countries. And an important share of palm oil producers are small-holder farmers who rely on the commodity as their primary income.

Palm oil is the number one cooking oil in Asia, where populations are rising, and demand for it the oil is expected to continue growing. Many  developing countries accordingly are looking to expand their production.

But it had not previously been clear how much land is available for expansion. In the new study, researchers started by creating a global map of where the conditions are right for producing palm oil, based on temperature, rainfall, slope, and soil type.

From a purely biophysical perspective, nearly 1.37 billion hectares of land globally have been found suitable for oil palm cultivation, in Africa, Central and South America, and Asia. From this the researchers removed any land which is already being used for other purposes, such as farming, residences, or cities, using the hybrid land cover maps developed at IIASA using crowd-sourced data.

Finally, the researchers ruled out areas that are protected by law and forests that are particularly valuable from a biodiversity or carbon storage perspective.

After all of these areas were removed, the resulting map includes an area of 19.3 million hectares of very suitable land which could potentially be available for future production. This is slightly more than the current extent of palm oil production, 18.1 million hectares.

But about half of this area is more than 10 hours drive to the closest city which might not allow for economically profitable oil production.

“This analysis will be a useful tool to identify area for future oil palm investments that meets some basic environmental standards. The maps are available to stakeholders who can combine them with local information to address other dimensions of sustainable development,” says IIASA researcher Aline Mosnier, who also worked on the study.

According to Fonterra’s website, PKE plays a role in feeding cows, including during adverse weather such as droughts. Pasture grass is, and will remain, the main source of feed in New Zealand – it’s one of our competitive advantages.

But Fonterra is concerned about tropical deforestation and carbon emissions to which the establishment of palm oil plantations has contributed.

As a result, since 2009, Fonterra has been a member of the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) which is a non-profit organisation set up by WWF (World Wildlife Fund) to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil products through credible standards and engagement with stakeholders.

PKE sold by Fonterra’s subsidiary, RD1, is bought from INL, which imports it from a single source, Wilmar International. Wilmar practices a “no burn” policy, respects designated conservation areas, employs wildlife protection experts, and is on target to complete RSPO certification audits for all their plantation operations by 2015. Wilmar recently announced that it no longer develops plantations on peat-land.

But while growing attention to deforestation has led many companies to begin aiming for sustainability certification in the sourcing of palm oil, the researchers involved in the new study argue that consumers and companies need to go a step beyond that.

Pirker says:

“Moves to ban palm oil are misguided. What we need to do instead is look at the origin of the oil, who is growing it how and where.”

 Certification is a first step in the right direction, he said, but companies committed to sustainability should look in more detail at their supply chains, and consumers can demand this of them.











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