South America & Africa biggest growth risks for palm oil - but upping market initiatives could curb deforestation

By Natalie Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

The largest areas of vulnerable forest are in Africa and South America, say researchers. ©iStock/slpu9945
The largest areas of vulnerable forest are in Africa and South America, say researchers. ©iStock/slpu9945

Related tags Palm oil

Voluntary market initiatives from the largest buyers and sellers of palm oil could help curb deforestation linked to the crop, researchers say, noting South America and Africa are most at risk of future damage.

These conclusions were drawn after analysing​ forests recently cleared to make way for oil palm plantations, as well as modelling areas likely to be cleared in the future.

“Almost all oil palm grows in areas that were once tropical moist forests, some of them quite recently,”​ said the team, led by Varsha Vijay of Duke University in the US.

They warned: “Today, consumer pressure is pushing companies toward deforestation-free sources of palm oil. (…) Government regulation and voluntary market interventions can help incentivise the expansion of oil palm plantations in ways that protect biodiversity-rich ecosystems.”

European companies like Nestlé have already made big public statements against oil palm-related deforestation. In May, the Swiss food giant cut ties​ with its Malaysian palm oil supplier IOI claiming its anti-deforestation plans did not go far enough.

Elsewhere in Europe, several businesses – including Tate & Lyle and Sensient Food Colours Europe – moved towards palm oil-free foods, using sunflower crops as a “viable alternative”​, experts told us​ previously.

The new study follows a host of other research on oil palm-led deforestation,including one which stressed​ oil palm deforestation damages 11 out of 14 functions of a healthy ecosystem.

Study findings: South America and Africa

Researchers on the new study compiled information on oil palm plantations which have recently replaced forests in 20 countries, using high-resolution imagery from Google Earth and Landsat.

The trends for deforestation were then compared to countrywide trends in the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) data for oil palm planted area.

The team also judged which forests have high agricultural suitability for future palm development – “vulnerable forests”​ – and identified areas where oil palm expansion threatens biodiversity, in particular mammals and birds.

The report is one of the few to focus on global palm oil deforestation, the team said, noting most look at Indonesia and Malaysia because together they account for around 80% of palm fruit production.

“As area for expansion in this region is limited, however, future expansion of oil palm plantations is likely to occur in other areas,”​ Vijay and team noted.

For instance, Mesoamerica and Africa had only 2% and 7% respectively of their oil palm plantations in areas that were forest in 1989, when the study period began due to cloud cover issues and gaps in Landsat data prior to this.

This leaves room to expand into the untouched forests.

“Despite having little plantation area currently, some countries in Latin America and Africa experienced greater percent growth during this period than did either Indonesia or Malaysia. If these growth rates continue, oil palm plantation expansion in these countries will likely have increased impacts,”​ the researchers said.

“The largest areas of vulnerable forest are in Africa and South America.”

Marketing initiatives

Voluntary company initiatives have become more popular in recent years, with big players pledging publicly to use deforestation-free palm oil in their products.

deforestation in brazil for soy crop, copyright Phototreat
Key stakeholders have committed to end agriculture-based deforestation practises by 2020, and end deforestation completely by 2030. ©iStock/Phototreat

The researchers pointed to this market pressure as a way to curb deforestation linked to palm oil plantations.

More than 180 governments, companies and organisations have signed the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF)​ calling for an end to deforestation for agricultural purposes such as oil palm by 2020.

The goal is to cut all deforestation (not just related to agriculture) by half in 2020 and completely by 2030.

A further 400 retailers and manufacturers have signed up to the Consumer Goods Forum​, which aims to wipe out deforestation in member companies’ supply chains by 2020, the researchers noted.

Other big deforestation-friendly businesses include Dunkin’ Donuts, Nestlé, Danone, Kellogg’s, Unilever and Heinz, to name but a few.

Italian confectioner Ferrero came out top in its commitment to forest-friendly palm oil, according to a recent Greenpeace report​.

However, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) 2015 palm oil score card​ – rating companies based on their commitment to using palm oil which does not affect forests – there are still “too many” companies lagging behind.

Companies with no commitment to using forest-friendly palm oil included Domino’s, Wendy’s and Walgreens.

All companies selling packaged foods had at least some commitment to eco-friendly palm oil.

None of the companies selling packaged foods were found to have zero commitment to eco-friendly palm oil.

Yet, of these firms, Kraft had the lowest commitment according to the scorecard.

“UCS (The Union of Concerned Scientists) is asking consumers to tell these companies that deforestation is an unacceptable ingredient in their products,”​ the team said.

Source: PLOS One

Published online first, doi:

“The Impacts of Oil Palm on Recent Deforestation and Biodiversity Loss”

Authors: Varsha Vijay, et al.

Related topics Commodities Sustainability

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