Share via Email This article is over 2 years old A forest activist inspects land clearing and drainage of peat natural forest Sumatra, Indonesia.
Too much of a good thing? Palm oil can be used in everything from cosmetics to fuel, and is cheap and efficient to produce.
But this versatile crop has a dark side — its incredible popularity has caused widespread environmental destruction. Ancient humans were buried with casks of it. In traditional African medicine, it's used to treat pain.
It can be found in about 40 percent of everyday products on supermarket shelves, from donuts to shampoo, chips to ice-cream — and even appears in the gas tank of your car. Palm oil is nothing if not versatile, and humans have known that for a long time.
It's probably been on the menu since hunter-gatherers realized that the thick clusters of reddish, plum-sized fruits growing in the tropics on African oil palm trees Elaeis guineensis yield far more rich fat than any other plant.
Archaeological evidence shows we've been processing palm oil fruit for at least 5, years. Long a regional trade good in Africa, it rose to global prominence in the late s when the British established the first commercial palm plantation in Indonesia. Palm oil cultivation doesn't have to be destructive.
There are smaller-scale sustainable farms like this one in Sierra Leone In the intervening years, palm oil production and demand have exploded.
Between and global consumption more than tripled from just over 17 million to more than 60 million metric tons, according to the US government see graphic.
The boom is taking an environmental toll, wiping out tracts of forest to create space for sprawling monocultures. A threat to species and the climate? In many places oil palms are grown unsustainably on clearcut jungle. Globally, plantations now cover aboutsquare kilometers 62, square miles of tropical landscapes, an area larger than Greece, according to the Rainforest Alliance.
By some estimates, soccer fields worth of land are being cleared for the crop every hour. In Borneo and Sumatra, that's wiping out habitat areas for rhinos, tigers and orangutans and driving those species toward extinction.
One recent study found that more thanBornean orangutans have been killed since - in part by hunters, but also by logging for paper mills and palm oil plantations. Palm oil production is the leading driver of tropical deforestation, which accounts for 18 percent of all global human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
Clearing Indonesian forests is a particular problem, because they store more carbon per hectare than the Brazilian Amazon thanks to their "carbon-rich" soils, according to US-based Union of Concerned Scientists.
Are corrupt politicians behind Peru's palm oil plantations?Vegetable oils are one of the most traded global commodities, and this is particularly true of palm oil. Unfortunately, as recently as , much of the palm oil entering . Land grabbing and exploitation of workers, including the use of child labour, is endemic.
And decades of deforestation for palm oil have created conditions ideal for furious forest and peatland fires. Leaked figures show spike in palm oil use for biodiesel in Europe It drives tropical deforestation, increases transport emissions, does nothing to help European farmers and does not improve.
But palm oil's appeal comes with significant costs.
Oil palm plantations often replace tropical forests, killing endangered species, uprooting local communities, and contributing to the release of climate-warming gases. Due mostly to oil palm production, Indonesia emits more greenhouse gases than any country besides China and the United States.
When deforestation and peatland drainage occur to make way for oil palm plantations, the sequestered carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming.
As demand for palm oil increases, tropical forests and peatlands—and the people and species that rely on them—are put at risk. For all these reasons, it is. Palm oil production has been a major driver of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia.
In Indonesia, from to , the total harvested palm area grew dramatically, tripling to 6 million hectares.