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Growing Solutions to The Growing Problem: Oil Palm

Peter Simmeth
Lake Forest College
Lake Forest, Illinois 60045

       People will always need to eat, therefore, food production is a burden on the environment that can never be fully eliminated. However, as society’s knowledge of ecology and environmentalism grows, so does its ability to reduce the ecological impacts of growing the food we need to survive. One common crop that contributes to large swaths of deforestation and pollution is the oil palm. Palm oil, a product of the oil palm, is widely used due to its high melting point and high oil yield, producing as much as 10 times the amount of oil that soya bean or rapeseed produce in the same amount of space (Spinks, 2014). Due to its low cost and flexibility, its consumption and production is expected to only increase in the coming years (USDA, 2017). As this production increases, what efforts can be made to minimize the environmental costs of palm oil production? This solution begins with a framework for providing resources and motivation to producers, through which better planning and management practices can be implemented into individual farms and plantations.   

       In order to create such worldwide change, a strong and adaptable plan must be established. One strong candidate for a worldwide agenda was created by Milder et al. (2015), who produced a comprehensive method to create new, and amend old agricultural sustainability standards to best reflect modern observational and experimental knowledge. The core to this program is creating demand for intervention, which leads to the adoption of standards of direct action, resulting in intermediate and broader conservation goals. In order to test if intervention standards are adequate, system-wide and sampled monitoring, coupled with focus research provides strong evaluation and monitoring of the effects of established standards. Some of these standards already exist in the form of optional certifications, such as Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade Certified. Snider et al (2017) analyzed the effects of the USDA organic certification on coffee, revealing that the certification helps cooperatives meet their sustainability goals while having a neutral effect on their profits. In a capitalist world that often causes a race to the bottom regarding ecological protection in industry, these certifications can help provide farmers with the resources needed to produce not only coffee but also palm oil and other agriculture sustainably without going out of business. If also backed by government mandates in producing and consuming countries, these requirements have the ability to create even greater change than the current, opt-in strategies used by these non-profits.

       While these certifications are helpful, they are useless without specific, measurable and achievable requirements for producers to pursue. One such requirement is the protection of soil carbon and nutrient balance in tropical soil. When tropical forest is cut down for the production of oil palm, moderately fertile soil left behind quickly deteriorates as unsustainable crop growth removes nutrients. Without forest, the natural method for replacing these nutrients is gone, quickly leading to desertification and replacing forests with sparse grasslands (Kairis et al., 2013).  However, in a recent study by Goodrick et al. (2015) it was shown that converting grasslands to oil palm in conjunction with fertilizing and other agricultural activities actually slightly increased soil carbon balance. This means oil palm could act as a transitionary crop between unfertile grasslands and more difficult to grow crops such as cacao, reducing the agricultural demand on deforestation as already deforested land is cultivated. Despite these benefits, the artificial fertilizer used in this process can lead to toxic algae blooms and other environmental damage. To prevent this, organic methods of fertilization can provide the same increased productivity of artificial fertilization with much smaller ecological impacts. In fact, using biochar or compost provided greater crop yield than traditional fertilizer, and using biochar and compost combined provided even more substantial benefits (Agegnehu et al., 2011). While these alternative methods of fertilization are more expensive, the combined benefits of increased output, greater long term stability and the aforementioned certification process can hopefully influence producers to use these less ecologically stressful soil management practices, reducing the environmental impact of oil palm cultivation. Even if not economically beneficial in the market, political mandates could still be used to induce demand and pressure suppliers to use these more sustainable practices.

       Along with these practices which reduce the impact of standard monoculture plantations, moving toward polyculture farming can provide many environmental advantages. In a polyculture farming structure, multiple crops are farmed together, mirroring the diversity of the natural environment. Through this process, the farmer hopes to naturally implement the resource cycles, such as the carbon and nitrogen cycles, instead of relying on artificial sources such as fertilizer. When polyculture farming techniques were implemented in oil palm plantations, the species richness of nearby bird populations was significantly increased (Yahya et al., 2017). With increased species richness comes a stronger, more resilient ecosystem, reducing the chances of endangered species becoming extinct (Cardinale et al., 2012). Despite the benefits of polyculture, the difficulty comes in the extra manpower required to maintain polyculture farms in a way that both creates product and protects biodiversity. For example, plants that compete directly with the oil palms and dead oil palms must be removed to keep the plot healthy for all of its inhabitants (Yahya et al., 2017). Ideally, the extra income that is granted from certifications and government programs will allow these practices to be used. However, society must accept that to protect the environment, goods will have to become either more expensive, more subsidized, or both. If these practices were already naturally advantageous from a business perspective, chances are they would already be widely implemented, which they are not.  

       With our current knowledge of species diversity, deforestation, and soil health, it is important to work towards more complete implementation of known methods of protecting the environment. From better management techniques such as biochar and compost, to new land use practices such as polyculture farming and using grasslands for oil palm, it is possible to provide the necessary sustenance for humanity without destroying the natural environment. Unfortunately, these practices often require more capital and labor investments, and so certification such as the Rainforest Alliance and USDA organic, along with government mandates and intensifications, should be used as a carrot and stick to move farmers and plantation owners toward more sustainable practices. Finally, these certifications, mandates, and incentives should adjust as new research and observations reveal better methods of reaching our ultimate goal of maintaining current levels of species richness and percentage of total forest coverage, and possibly even working to undo the damage caused by past generations.



Agegnehu, G., Bass, A. M., Nelson, P. N., and M. I. Bird. (2016). Benefits of biochar, compost and biochar–compost for soil quality, maize yield and greenhouse gas emissions in a tropical agricultural soil. Elsevier, 295-306.

Cardinale, B. J., Duffy, J. E., Gonzalez, A., Hooper, D. U., Perrings, C., Venail, P., … A. Larigauderie. (2012). Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity. Nature, 59–67.

Goodrick, I., Nelson, P. N., Banabas, M., Wurster, C. M., and M. I. Bird. (2015). Soil carbon balance following conversion of grassland to oil palm. GCB Bioenergy, 263-272.

Kairis, O., Kosmas, C., Karavitis, C., Ritsema, C., Salvati, L., Acikalin, S., … A. Ziogas. (2014). Evaluation and Selection of Indicators for Land Degradationand Desertification Monitoring: Types of Degradation, Causes, and Implications for Management. Environmental Management, 971-982.

Milder, J., Arbuthnot, M., Blackman, A., Brooks, S. E., Giovannucci, D., Gross, L., … M. Zrust. (2014). An agenda for assessing and improving conservation impacts of sustainability standards in tropical agriculture. Conservation Biology, 309-320.

Snider, A., Gutierrez, I., Sibelet, N., and G. Faure. (2017). Small farmer cooperatives and voluntary coffee certifications: Rewarding progressive farmers of engendering widespread change in Costa Rica? Elsevier, 231-242.

Spinks, R. (2014, December 17). Why does palm oil still dominate the supermarket shelves? . Retrieved from The Guardian: www.theguardian.com

USDA. (2017, April 11). Domestic use of canola, corn, and palm oil growing at a faster rate than soybean oil. Retrieved from Economic Research Service: www.ers.usda.gov

Yahya, M. S., Syafiq, M., Ashton-Butt, A., Ghazali, M., Asmah, S., and B. Azhar. (2017). Switching from monoculture to polyculture farming benefits birds in oil palm production landscapes: Evidence from mist netting data. Wiley, 6314-6325.


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