20 November 2019
Palm oil has become an environmental villain in recent years, as people have become more aware that producing it often involves clearing rainforests – but this happens less often in Colombia than in other countries that are major producers.
If you buy products containing palm oil from plants grown in Colombia, there is a 60 to 70 per cent chance that it comes from plantations on former pastureland for cattle, rather than on former rainforest, says Juan Carlos Quezada at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne’s Ecological Systems Laboratory.
Planting oil palm trees on pastureland in Colombia doesn’t increase carbon emissions, according to a study by Quezada and his colleagues. He says it also has much less impact on wildlife. “People should try to buy palm oil from Colombia.”
Globally, growing demand for palm oil is leading to a rapid expansion of oil palm plantations. In Malaysia and Indonesia, rich rainforests are being cut down and replaced with oil palms. This is not only devastating for wildlife – including the orangutan – it also releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide.
The main reason why palm oil demand is increasing is that huge quantities are now being turned into subsidised biofuels. More than half of the palm oil consumed in the European Union is burned in cars and trucks. As New Scientist reported in 2018, taxpayers in the EU are effectively paying for rainforests to be cut down in the name of tackling climate change.
Did You See This CB Softwares?
37 SOFTWARE TOOLS... FOR $27!?Join Affiliate Bots Right Away
That said, oil palm produces higher yields of oil per hectare than other vegetable oil crops, and is a more efficient use of land than livestock. “Cattle ranching produces one or two animals per hectare every few years,” says Quezada. “You get three or four tonnes of palm oil per hectare every year.”
“Colombian palm oil is certainly greener than Indonesian or Malaysian palm oil, but we still need to be careful,” says Stephanie Searle at the International Council on Clean Transportation in Washington DC.
Suppose palm oil produced in Colombia is now sold in Peru, says Searle. If the US starts importing lots of Colombian palm oil, Peru may import it from Indonesia instead. And if overall demand keeps rising fast because of biofuel use, forests will still be cut down.
“No matter how the palm oil is grown, if it could have been used for food and you’re taking it away from that sector because of additional demand in transport, there will be knock-on effects,” says Laura Buffet of Transport & Environment, a group that campaigns for greener transport in Europe.
In addition, if the land were just left alone, forests could regrow, say both Searle and Buffet. This would lock away more carbon than plantations or pastures. However, Quezeda says some of the pastureland in Colombia was originally tropical savannah, rather than being land deforested long ago.
Journal reference: Science Advances, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw4418
More on these topics: