Nav: Home

When grown right, palm oil can be sustainable

November 20, 2019

Scientists from EPFL and WSL have been studying soils in oil palm cultivation for years, in an effort to develop more sustainable methods for growing this crop. Palm oil production has been criticized by environmentalists because of its large carbon footprint and negative impact on biodiversity. For instance, in Indonesia and Malaysia - the world's two biggest producers - it has directly or indirectly caused large-scale deforestation, thereby reducing biodiversity and releasing significant amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. And planting oil palm trees in the deforested areas does not make up for the lost carbon storage capacity, according to a 2018 study carried out by EPFL and WSL.

But the findings of a new study by EPFL and WSL - appearing today in Science Advances - indicate there may be a carbon-friendly alternative to deforestation. The scientists investigated oil palm crops that had been planted on former pastures in the Los Llanos region of Colombia, the world's fourth-largest palm oil producer. There, large areas of pastures - which themselves had been planted in the past on savannas - were replaced by oil palm plantations 56 years ago. By calculating the crops' carbon footprint since then, the scientists found that the total carbon storage - taking into account both vegetation and soil stocks - was unchanged relative to when the land had been used for pastures.

"Our study is the first to look at the carbon footprint of palm oil production over the long term - that is, across two plantation cycles, since oil palm trees are replaced every 25-30 years," says Juan Carlos Quezada, a PhD student at EPFL's Ecological Systems Laboratory (ECOS) and the study's lead author. "It's also the first to explore how converting pastures into oil palm farms affects soil quality and fertility over the long term, looking at all soil layers, not just the surface."

Carbon capture

In tropical climates, pastures - especially those that have been neglected and degraded - commonly consist of large grassy areas with a few small trees scattered around. Planting dense populations of oil palm trees - which can reach 15 meters in height - on these pastures can increase the carbon capture rate per unit of surface area, thanks to the palm trees' roots, trunks and leaves, as well as the vegetation around them.

Under typical farming methods, oil palm trees are cut down every 25-30 years and replaced with young trees to start a new plantation cycle. As the roots and other parts of the old trees decompose, they nourish the soil and partially offset the carbon initially lost in the upper soil layer when the pastureland was converted. As a result, over the long term cultivation period, the amount of carbon stored in the ecosystem remains unchanged compared to the initial level before land conversion took place.

An alternative worth exploring

"We should bear in mind that palm oil in and of itself is not harmful - neither to our health, when eaten in moderation, nor to the economy. And we're not talking just about multinationals - the incomes of hundreds of small farmers in Colombia and other countries depend on it," says Alexandre Buttler, head of ECOS and a co-author of the study. "The problem lies with the negative carbon impact and loss of biodiversity caused by deforestation. But the main palm oil producing countries have large abandoned pastures that could be converted favorably, thus limiting the massive carbon loss resulting from deforestation."

This study was conducted as part of the Oil Palm Adaptive Landscapes (OPAL) project, a cross-disciplinary initiative funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and led by ETH Zurich. OPAL brings together project partners from Switzerland, Indonesia, Colombia and Cameroon. Local universities, research institutes and the WWF in the latter three countries have a stake in the project, raising awareness about this issue among their local communities in order to promote the development of sustainable alternatives.
-end-
Reference

Juan Carlos Quezada, Andres Etter, Jaboury Ghazoul, Alexandre Buttler and Thomas Guillaume, "Carbon neutral expansion of oil palm plantations in the Neotropics," Science Advances, 20 November 2019. 10.1126/sciadv.aaw4418

Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

Related Biodiversity Articles:

About the distribution of biodiversity on our planet
Large open-water fish predators such as tunas or sharks hunt for prey more intensively in the temperate zone than near the equator.
Bargain-hunting for biodiversity
The best bargains for conserving some of the world's most vulnerable salamanders and other vertebrate species can be found in Central Texas and the Appalachians, according to new conservation tools developed at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Researchers solve old biodiversity mystery
The underlying cause for why some regions are home to an extremely large number of animal species may be found in the evolutionary adaptations of species, and how they limit their dispersion to specific natural habitats.
Biodiversity offsetting is contentious -- here's an alternative
A new approach to compensate for the impact of development may be an effective alternative to biodiversity offsetting -- and help nations achieve international biodiversity targets.
Biodiversity yields financial returns
Farmers could increase their revenues by increasing biodiversity on their land.
Biodiversity and wind energy
The location and operation of wind energy plants are often in direct conflict with the legal protection of endangered species.
Mapping global biodiversity change
A new study, published in Science, which focuses on mapping biodiversity change in marine and land ecosystems shows that loss of biodiversity is most prevalent in the tropic, with changes in marine ecosystems outpacing those on land.
What if we paid countries to protect biodiversity?
Researchers from Sweden, Germany, Brazil and the USA have developed a financial mechanism to support the protection of the world's natural heritage.
Grassland biodiversity is blowing in the wind
Temperate grasslands are the most endangered but least protected ecosystems on Earth.
The loss of biodiversity comes at a price
A University of Cordoba research team ran the numbers on the impact of forest fires on emblematic species using the fires in Spain's Doñana National Park and Segura mountains in 2017 as examples
More Biodiversity News and Biodiversity Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.