Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Article
  • Published:

Oil palm cultivation can be expanded while sparing biodiversity in India


India is the world’s largest consumer and importer of palm oil. In an aggressive push towards self-sufficiency in vegetable oils, the Indian government is prioritizing the rapid expansion of domestic oil palm plantations to meet an expected doubling in palm oil consumption in the next 15 years. Yet the current expansion of oil palm in India is occurring at the expense of biodiversity-rich landscapes. Using a spatially explicit model, we show that at the national scale India appears to have viable options to satisfy its projected national demand for palm oil without compromising either its biodiversity or its food security. At finer spatial scales, India’s oil palm expansion needs to incorporate region-specific contingencies and account for trade-offs between biodiversity conservation, climate change, agricultural inputs and economic and social security. The policy decisions that India takes with respect to oil palm can substantially reduce future pressures to convert forests to oil palm plantations in the tropics globally.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: Suitability of land for oil palm cultivation in India.
Fig. 2: Land use, land cover and HCV areas in India.
Fig. 3: Overlaps between HCV areas and potential oil palm growing areas.

Similar content being viewed by others

Data availability

Source data on spatially explicit oil palm yields under various scenarios are freely available at Source data on land use and land cover are freely downloadable at Vector and raster data files used in the analyses in this manuscript are available at

Code availability

The R script used in the analyses in this manuscript is available at


  1. Vijay, V., Pimm, S. L., Jenkins, C. N. & Smith, S. J. The impacts of oil palm on recent deforestation and biodiversity loss. PLoS One 11, pe0159668 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Rulli, M. C. et al. Interdependencies and telecoupling of oil palm expansion at the expense of Indonesian rainforest. Renew. Sustain. Energy Rev. 105, 499–512 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Davis, K. F. et al. Tropical forest loss enhanced by large-scale land acquisitions. Nat. Geosci. 13, 482–488 (2020).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Strona, G. et al. Small room for compromise between oil palm cultivation and primate conservation in Africa. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115, 8811–8816 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. United States Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service. Data retrieved from: (2020).

  6. Sagar, H. S. et al. India in the oil palm era: describing India’s dependence on palm oil, recommendations for sustainable production, and opportunities to become an influential consumer. Trop. Conserv. Sci. 12, 1940082919838918 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Jadhav, R. Exclusive: India urges boycott of Malaysian palm oil after diplomatic row—sources. Reuters (13 January 2020).

  8. Srinivasan, U. Oil palm should not be expanded in Arunachal Pradesh. Arunachal Times (October 2016).

  9. Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare. National Mission on Oilseeds and Oil Palm; (Government of India, 2020).

  10. Bose, P. Oil palm plantations vs shifting cultivation for indigenous peoples: analyzing Mizoram’s New Land Use Policy. Land Use Policy 81, 115–123 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Dhar, A. Enter oil palm in northeast India: centre, Patanjali, Godrej bet big. The Citizen (16 September 2020).

  12. Raman, T. R. S. R. Is oil palm expansion good for Mizoram? The Frontier Despatch 3, 6–7 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  13. Khandekar, N. Expanding oil palm plantations in the northeast could extract a long-term cost. The Wire (4 August 2020).

  14. Mandal, J. & Raman, T. R. S. R. Shifting agriculture supports more tropical forest birds than oil palm or teak plantations in Mizoram, northeast India. The Condor 118, 345–359 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Nandi, J. Oil palm push on the northeast may impact biodiversity, water table, say experts. Hindustan Times 10, 51 (2020).

    Google Scholar 

  16. Myers, N., Mittermeier, R. A., Mittermeier, C. G., Da Fonseca, G. A. B. & Kent, J. Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature 403, 853–858 (2000).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  17. Global Agro-Ecological Zones, GAEZ v.3.0 (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2016);

  18. Corley, R. H. V. How much palm oil do we need? Environ. Sci. Policy 12, 134–139 (2009).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. Meijaard, E. et al. The environmental impacts of palm oil in context. Nat. Plants 6, 1418–1426 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. West, P. C. et al. Leverage points for improving global food security and the environment. Science 18, 325–328 (2014).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  21. Fan, Y., Li, H. & Miguez-Macho, G. Global patterns of groundwater table depth. Science 339, 940–943 (2013).

  22. Shaktivadivel, R. The Agricultural Groundwater Revolution: Opportunities and Threats to Development (CAB International, 2007).

    Google Scholar 

  23. Lee, J. S. H., Miteva, D. A., Carlson, K. M., Heilmayr, R. & Saif, O. Does oil palm certification create trade-offs between environment and development in Indonesia? Env. Res. Lett. 15, 124064 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Sankar, K. N. M. Oil palm finds favour with East Godavari farmers. The Hindu (25 January 2017).

  25. Curry, G. N. & Koczberski, G. Finding common ground: relational concepts of land tenure and economy in the oil palm frontier of Papua New Guinea. Geogr. J. 175, 98–111 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. DeVos, R., Kohne, M. & Roth, D. We’ll turn your water in Coca Cola: the atomising practices of oil palm development in Indonesia. J. Agrar. Change 1, 385–405 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. IPCC. Climate Change: Synthesis Report (eds Core Writing Team, Pachauri, R. K. & Meyer, L. A.) (IPCC, 2014).

  28. IPCC. IPCC Special Reports on Emissions Scenarios: Summary for Policymakers (IPCC, 2000).

  29. Schwalm, C. R., Glendon, S. & Duffy, P. B. RCP8. 5 tracks cumulative CO2 emissions. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 18, 19656–19657 (2020).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  30. Copernicus Land Monitoring Service (European Environment Agency, 2020).

  31. Hoffman, M., Koenig, K., Bunting, G., Cosntanza, J. & Willams, K. J. Biodiversity Hotspots v.2016.1 (2016);

  32. IUCN World Database on Protected Areas, online April 2017 (UNEP-WCMC, 2016);

  33. QGIS Development Team. QGIS Geographic Information System (Open Source Geospatial Foundation, 2021);

  34. R Core Team. R: A Language and Environment for Statistical Computing (R Foundation for Statistical Computing, 2021).

Download references


We thank M.O. Anand and R. Senior for their help with the GIS analyses. A.T. Vanak commented on savannah/grassland areas and grassland biodiversity in India. This work was supported by a grant from the High Meadows Foundation. K.F.D. was supported by The Nature Conservancy’s NatureNet Science Fellows programme. J.S.H.L. acknowledges funding from the Singaporean Ministry of Education Academic Research Fund Tier 1 RG145/19.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



U.S., N.V. and D.S.W. co-conceived the paper. U.S., N.V., J.S.H.L., D.D.C. and K.F.D. extracted the data from online sources and performed the analysis. U.S. wrote the first draft of the manuscript and all authors contributed substantially to revisions.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Umesh Srinivasan.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Food thanks Clinton Jenkins, Edward Mitchard, Stuart Pimm and Giovanni Strona for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary methods, Tables 1–3 and Figs. 1–3.

Reporting Summary

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Srinivasan, U., Velho, N., Lee, J.S.H. et al. Oil palm cultivation can be expanded while sparing biodiversity in India. Nat Food 2, 442–447 (2021).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing Anthropocene

Sign up for the Nature Briefing: Anthropocene newsletter — what matters in anthropocene research, free to your inbox weekly.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing: Anthropocene