Journal of Oil Palm Research Vol. 31  September 2019 p.  331-347
DOI: https://doi.org/10.21894/jopr.2019.0046

LEARNING TO LOVE THE WORLD’S MOST HATED CROP –Review Articles

Author(s): JACKSON, T A*; CRAWFORD, J W**; TRAEHOLT, C‡ and SANDERS, T A B‡‡

The 2019 Inter-governmental Panel (IPCC) Report on Climate Change and Land highlighted the urgency and scale of the environmental impact from human-induced landscape change. Palm oil has historically had a particularly negative reputation for driving deforestation, biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions, social exploitation and damaging health. In the eyes of many in the West, it is regarded as the world’s most hated crop. However, palm is highly productive compared with other crops and produces 40% of the worlds edible oil from only 5% of vegetable oil producing land and 0.4% of agricultural land in total. It has the potential to meet future demand for oil with minimum additional environmental and climate impact compared with other sources of vegetable oil. The related high value density has the potential to move millions of vulnerable smallholder farmers out of poverty. Given the conclusions of the IPCC Climate and Land Report, it is therefore important to re-examine the crop’s reputation in light of the accumulated evidence and to properly understand the full impacts across the environmental, health, social and economic factors. We present a comprehensive review of the benefits and risks of the crop across these dimensions and provide a new synthesis. We conclude that while oil palm has had a significant negative impact on habitat and biodiversity, it plays a minor role compared with poaching, illegal logging and threats from climate change. There are important opportunities for the industry to reverse this damage. Its reputation for negative health impacts are not backed up by the scientific evidence and indeed there may be health benefits from substituting some oils in the diet with oil palm. Positive social and economic impacts are most obvious in areas where proper market-led economies are in place, but there can be significant negative social impacts in less developed areas. We conclude that much of the reputation of palm oil is not based on a balanced interpretation of the scientific evidence. Provided future development is zero deforestation, does not occur on peat, uses methane capture technology at the mills, empowers indigenous smallholders and supports the regeneration of secondary forest, we conclude that oil palm can be the most environmentally, socially and economically sustainable means to meet future demand for vegetable oil. Indeed, with pro-active collaboration with relevant non-government organisations, oil palm can be part of the solution to reversing the degradation of tropical forest biomes.

Keywords: , ,

Author Information
* Forage Science, AgResearch Ltd, Lincoln Research Centre, 8014 Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand.
E-mail: trevor.jackson@agresearch.co.nz

** Sustainable Systems Programme, Rothamstead Research, Herpenden, Hertfordshire AL5 2JQ, United Kingdom.

‡ Research and Conservation Division, Copenhagen Zoo, Roskildevej 38, 2000 Frederiksberg, Denmark.

‡‡ Department of Nutritional Sciences, King’s College London, Franklin-Wilkins Building, 150 Stamford Street, London SE1 9NH, United Kingdom.


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