Today you will find palm oil in food, cosmetics, cleaning products and fuel. Its production destroys tropical forests and the species living there. Nevertheless, the demand is expected to increase sharply in the coming years.
"Almost two hundred critically endangered species have palm oil production among their main threats," Professor Douglas Sheil at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) says.
"To stop the loss of biodiversity, we must stop cutting down tropical forests to grow palm oil.
Ten times as effective
Palm oil is a popular product, and for good reason. It has a wide range of uses and is cheap to manufacture.
"Growing oil palm is about 10 times more effective than growing soybeans or rapeseed," Sheil says.
Such a productive and profitable plant has obvious benefits and is not easy to replace.
"Palm oil is here to stay," he says.
"We must therefore find sustainable solutions instead.”
Sheil is a member of the IUCN Oil Palm Task Force, an expert group who today has published a report on palm oil and biodiversity. It concludes that the production of palm oil will have disastrous effects on global biodiversity if current trends continue.
"The report provides a balanced science-based overview of a highly controversial topic, and shows the way forward for better outcomes for biodiversity in a world where the palm oil industry is here to stay," Sheil comments.
The researchers concludes that banning oil palm production is not the solution to the problem.
"A ban on palm oil will most likely only move, and not stop the loss of biodiversity," says Sheil.
The key is increased sustainability and awareness in every part of the value chain.
"Global demand for palm oil is growing, but making production more sustainable is up to all of us," he says.
Everyone must contribute
“There is no quick fix here. Every part of the system must do its job,” says Sheil.
He further explains that governments, producers and supply chains must commit to increasing sustainability, and of course adhere to these policies.
- Consumers and vendors must demand that production is sustainable.
- Decision makers must adopt policies that promote sustainable production, as well as restrict the use of non-food products, such as biofuel.
- Importing countries must demand sustainable production.
- Production countries must enforce the protection of biodiversity and forbid deforestation because of new plantations.
- Oil producers must stop cutting down rainforests to plant new plantations, and manage already affected areas more sustainably than most do today.
Less than 20 percent of today's production is certified as sustainable.
Many negative consequences
Although deforestation and loss of biodiversity are often listed as the main challenges of palm oil production, it also has other negative effects.
"Other negative consequences of plantations include reduced soil and water quality, greenhouse gas emissions and increased conflicts between humans and animals, to name a few," Sheil says.