Photo: Adam Jones

The palm oil industry has a reputation for devastating forests, destroying wildlife, exploiting workers and polluting our air and climate. Is it possible for this historically unsustainable enterprise to green up its act?

A new study, conducted by researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), utilized a set of sustainability metrics to assess the amount of eco-friendly globally available land suitable for oil palm expansion. The researchers found that 234 million hectares (Mha), out of 1.37 billion hectares (Bha) of suitable land – categorized by climatic, soil and topographical criteria – could be used to produce palm oil with minimal environmental impacts.

Palm oil fruits after a harvest. (Photo Credit: Craig Morey / Flickr)

Palm oil fruits after a harvest. (Photo Credit: Craig Morey / Flickr)

While that might sound like a lot of space only a fraction of that area – 19.3 Mha – is “very suitable” for oil palms. If you consider accessibility, the land area is further restricted; only 18 percent of the 234 Mha is within 2 hours of a city, with most of the optimal land in more remote regions.

What Is “Sustainable” Palm Oil?

Before considering sustainability criteria, the authors removed all urban areas, protected areas (like national parks), crops and pasturelands, existing palm oil operations and logging concessions from the 1.37 Bha of suitable land for oil palm expansion.

Then – referencing High Conservation Value and High Carbon Stocks indicators – the authors excluded bio-diverse regions and known carbon sinks – like peat lands and carbon rich aboveground biomass – from the available space. Seventy-three percent of the total suitable land failed to meet sustainability criteria due to the carbon stock considerations alone, which the authors suggest, could be used as a singular rough estimator of sustainable locations when other information is unavailable.

Palm oil plantation near Tiberias, Galilee, Israel. (Photo Credit: Adam Jones / Flickr)

Palm oil plantation near Tiberias, Galilee, Israel. (Photo Credit: Adam Jones / Flickr)

The Future of Palm Oil Production

Palm oil production has skyrocketed in the last few decades; about half of all packaged snacks contain the substance and cultivation has increased from roughly 6 Mha in 1990 to more than 18 Mha in 2016.

Indonesia and Malaysia currently produce over 80 percent of the global supply. Despite its environmental impacts, other developing countries view palm oil production as an opportunity to create jobs and alleviate poverty.

As the need for cooking oil increases, palm oil – due to its relatively high yield and low price – is likely to meet most of the added demand, the study’s authors report.

Olive oil. (Photo Credit: neufal54 / Pixabay)

Olive oil. (Photo Credit: neufal54 / Pixabay)

The study concludes that Brazil has the most suitable land for sustainable oil palm expansion, followed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Colombia and Indonesia.

Sustainability measures and certification schemes, such as the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), are currently used to help provide farmers with best practices and give consumers information; however, these sustainability metrics are being applied to a small portion of the global supply.

Indonesia recently passed a ban on new palm oil plantations to limit further associated destruction. However, the ban lacks the teeth it needs to make a significant impact. In fact, there are several established laws that, in theory would minimize the negative environmental, social, and climate impacts of the business; however, as Heather Rally, a PETA wildlife veterinarian who has studied Indonesia’s palm oil hub in Sumatra, told Planet Experts, “The problem is not that the laws don’t exist, the problem is that they’re not being enforced.”

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