RESEARCHERS in Austria say that the land used for palm oil production could be doubled without further damage to sensitive environments like tropical forests.
Palm oil is the world’s most common vegetable oil, accounting for 30% of global vegetable oil use. It is used for frying, in baked and processed foods, in consumer products such as detergents, and for biodiesel. The oilseeds have a very high yield and the oil is cheap. Demand for palm oil continues to rise, and it has been important socially and economically, lifting millions of small-scale famers out of poverty. The team at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), led by Johannes Pirker, conducted the first study to map suitable land for palm production on a global scale, taking into consideration temperature, rainfall, slope and soil type, as well as environmental issues.
The researchers used a map previously compiled by IIASA and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) from satellite data, data from other institutions, and information from local volunteers. They found that almost 1.37bn ha of land across tropical regions of Africa, Central and South America and Asia, would theoretically be suitable for growing oil palms. The team then discounted land already being used for other purposes, including farming and habitation, land protected by law, and land valuable from a biodiversity or carbon storage potential. This left an area of 19.3m ha of suitable land. Currently, there are around 18.1m ha of oil palm cultivation.
Between 1990 and 2010, the area of land covered by palm oil plantations grew from 6m ha to 16m ha, an area the size of Uruguay. Much of this, however, came at the expense of environmentally-important tropical forests and peatland, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia, which produce 80% of the world’s palm oil. This has made palm oil somewhat controversial from an environmental perspective, and finding ways and areas to grow it sustainably is likely to be welcomed.
“There is room to expand palm oil production and to do it in a sustainable way,” concluded Pirker.
The researchers caution, however, that using some of the land may be difficult. Around half of the land they identified is more than ten hours’ drive to a city.
Global Environmental Change DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2016.06.007
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