The palm oil industry is not good for the planet. Making room for these crops has inevitably led to deforestation, peatland draining, widespread burning, biodiversity losses, greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. But what greener options do we have?
With little research on the environmental impacts of alternative crops, some researchers think we could be trading in one evil for another even worse. Boycotting palm oil might make sense for social and political reasons, they say, but environmentally, it could make things worse.
A review comparing the impacts of palm oil and vegetable oils has now reinforced those concerns.
While there are very real environmental dangers when it comes to the palm oil industry, research on the impact and trade-offs of other crops is severely limited.
"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," they write.
Even still, we are turning to them in ever greater numbers. In general, demand for vegetable oils, of which palm oil is a subset, is on track to increase by 46 percent by 2050. While other vegetable oil crops could compete for this demand, many also require deforestation and land clearing.
Palm oil crops, on the other hand, yield up to ten times more product per unit of land and can be grown on sites unsuitable for many other crops. An International Union for Conservation of Nature brief from 2018 reported that oil palm trees make up around 35 percent of all vegetable oil crops while they grow on just 10 percent of the allocated land.
It's clear that palm oil has played a key role in deforestation around the world, especially in the beginning when new plantations were being added. But between 2000 and 2013, a review of 23 studies found just 0.2 percent of global deforestation was caused by oil palm development.
Today, alternative crops like soybean actually cause double the deforestation, especially in precious ecosystems like the Amazon.
"Other oil crops have not yet been mapped globally with similar levels of accuracy, precluding detailed assessments and comparisons," the authors write.
We simply need more information on how these other crops and their environmental impacts compare. Coconut oil, for instance, is mostly grown in the tropics, where endemic species may be particularly vulnerable to the invasive plant.
Still, as pressure mounts against the palm oil industry, the world has largely ignored its alternatives. Putting a stop to further deforestation and biodiversity loss will probably require a mix of approaches, the authors argue, and palm oil crops should be a part of that.
If old palm oil plantations are made more sustainable and new plantations are grown in already deforested areas or degraded ecosystems, some studies even suggest these crops could produce lower carbon emissions than other oil plants, such as the European rapeseed.
If that's true, boycotting palm oil could actually lead to further emissions as we try to make up for its loss with other more damaging crops. On the other hand, keeping palm oil around and being careful about where we plant it and how we cultivate it could spare untouched peatlands and forests.
There's already a certification for sustainable palm oil, which could be expanded to allow consumers greater decision making while buying groceries. But if we really want to make the greenest decisions for the future of our planet and the human race, we simply need more research on what plants are most sustainable and why.
"Consistent and comparable information on the extent and consequences of other oil crops is urgently required to encourage more efficient land use," the review concludes.
Don't write palm oil off just yet.
The study was published in Nature Plants.