Palm oil sustainability hampered by few biodiversity studies

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Oil palm, Palm oil, Biodiversity

More research is urgently needed on the biodiversity impact of palm
oil production, says a new report, as food and other consumer goods
manufacturers make sustainable sourcing a priority.

Palm oil, a major source of vegetable oils and fat, is derived from the tropical crop oil palm, which is cultivated in lowland areas of South America, Africa and Asia. The two biggest producers are Malaysia and Indonesia. According to the authors of the new report looking at the focus of recent research on palm oil, published in the journal PLoS ONE, more than 10.7m hectares of land are now devoted to oil palm - an increase of168 per cent on 1960. More than 37m metric tons of palm oil were produced in 2005. They say that higher levels of palm oil production are generally associated with a higher number of endangered species - but there is a sore lack of research into the extent of the problem, particularly when it comes to the insect level. This is an issue for food companies looking to lay down a good track record on sustainability. Indeed, groups aiming to promote sustainable palm oil production, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, count multinational food companies and retailers amongst their members. But without studies on biodiversity, it is extremely hard to develop informed conservation strategies and ensure that plantations are managed sustainably, warn the researchers from the Insect Ecology Group at the University Museum of Ecology in Cambridge, UK. What is more, the impact - presently unquantified - is likely to become more grave with rising demand and the accompanying expectation that production will increase in the future. Head of the insect ecology research group Dr William Foster said: "Much more research must be carried out to determine the impacts of habitat conversion on insect biodiversity. We need to move on from merely cataloguing biodiversity impacts, to understanding how all aspects of ecosystem services are affected by agricultural expansion."​ Foster's team identified papers on oil palm published since 1970 wising the Web of Science tool. These were then put into different categories depending on their focus. Interestingly, the major focus of research has been on uses of palm on the use of palm oil by the food industry and its effects on human health. This accounted for 22.19 per cent of the 678 papers identified. But only 23 publications on biodiversity were identified, and 63 on other environmental issues. This tally is "extremely low",​ say the researchers. Moreover, the biodiversity studies that have taken place have tended to focus on the impact on larger animals like Sumatran tigers and leopard cats. Only five studies looked at the impact of converting forest to oil palm plantations on invertebrate populations. "Although these larger animals are important flagships for the state of the tropical environment, they are not good indicators of oil palm plantation biodiversity,"​ wrote Foster. "The vast majority of species worldwide are insects, which carry out the lion's share of the ecosystem function." ​ In the last ten years there has been an increase in increase in the amount of research on by-products from the oil palm industry, chemistry, engineering and biotechnology, and biofuels. Source: PLoS ONE (3)2 e1572 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0001572 Title: Oil palm research in context: Identifying the need for biodiversity assessment Authors: Turner EC, Snaddon JL, Fayle TM, Foster WA.

Related topics: Science, Fats & oils

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