Delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) requires balancing demands on land between agriculture (SDG 2) and biodiversity (SDG 15). The production of vegetable oils and, in particular, palm oil, illustrates these competing demands and trade-offs. Palm oil accounts for ~40% of the current global annual demand for vegetable oil as food, animal feed and fuel (210 Mt), but planted oil palm covers less than 5–5.5% of the total global oil crop area (approximately 425 Mha) due to oil palm’s relatively high yields. Recent oil palm expansion in forested regions of Borneo, Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, where >90% of global palm oil is produced, has led to substantial concern around oil palm’s role in deforestation. Oil palm expansion’s direct contribution to regional tropical deforestation varies widely, ranging from an estimated 3% in West Africa to 50% in Malaysian Borneo. Oil palm is also implicated in peatland draining and burning in Southeast Asia. Documented negative environmental impacts from such expansion include biodiversity declines, greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. However, oil palm generally produces more oil per area than other oil crops, is often economically viable in sites unsuitable for most other crops and generates considerable wealth for at least some actors. Global demand for vegetable oils is projected to increase by 46% by 2050. Meeting this demand through additional expansion of oil palm versus other vegetable oil crops will lead to substantial differential effects on biodiversity, food security, climate change, land degradation and livelihoods. Our Review highlights that although substantial gaps remain in our understanding of the relationship between the environmental, socio-cultural and economic impacts of oil palm, and the scope, stringency and effectiveness of initiatives to address these, there has been little research into the impacts and trade-offs of other vegetable oil crops. Greater research attention needs to be given to investigating the impacts of palm oil production compared to alternatives for the trade-offs to be assessed at a global scale.
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The development of this situation analysis was supported by the IUCN project ‘Global Commons: Solutions for a Crowded Planet’, funded by the Global Environment Facility. D.J.B. received funding from the UK Research and Innovation’s Global Challenges Research Fund under the Trade, Development and the Environment Hub project (project number ES/S008160/1). M.P. was supported by the CNPq research productivity fellowships (no. 308403/2017‐7). J.G.-U. was funded by SNSF R4D-project Oil Palm Adaptive Landscapes.
None of co-authors in this study, except D.J.B., M.P. and J.G.-U., received funding for conducting this Review, although the information was partly based on a study funded by the Global Environment Facility. E.M., T.M.B., D.G., M.A., S.W., L.P.K., J.G.-U., K.C., N.M. and D.S. are members of and have received funding from the IUCN Oil Palm Task Force, a group tasked by the IUCN members to investigate the sustainability of palm oil. T.M.B., D.J.B., M.A., C.S. and N.M. work for conservation organizations and E.M., M.A. and M.P. have done work paid by palm oil companies or the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
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Meijaard, E., Brooks, T.M., Carlson, K.M. et al. The environmental impacts of palm oil in context. Nat. Plants 6, 1418–1426 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-020-00813-w
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