By Emily Beament, Press Association Environment Correspondent
Banning or boycotting palm oil because of its impact on nature could lead to a switch to other “land-hungry” oil crops with environmental damage in new areas, a report warns.
Palm oil is found in everything from ready meals and biscuits to cosmetics and cleaning products, with around 25 million hectares (60 million acres) used to produce it worldwide, the study said.
It is controversial because large areas of rainforest have been cleared for plantations, causing damage to the wildlife that lives there, releasing carbon emissions and affecting local communities.
But moves to ban or boycott palm oil could see other oils take its place, which could significantly increase the amount of land needed to meet demand, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) warns.
That could lead to other natural areas and wildlife suffering, according to the organisation.
The report by the IUCN revealed that palm oil is harming wildlife worldwide, with 193 species listed as threatened with extinction affected by its production and orangutans, gibbons and tigers among the species suffering severe harm.
Most of the impacts on wildlife are currently felt in Malaysia and Indonesia, though they could spill over into Africa and tropical parts of the Americas.
Areas into which production could expand are currently home to more than half (54%) of the world’s threatened mammals and almost two thirds (64%) of all threatened birds, the report said.
Given that other crops require up to nine times as much land to produce the same amount of oil, switching away from palm oil may not have benefits for nature.
Damage could shift to other wildlife-rich places such as South American tropical forests and savannah if other oil crops replaced palm oil, the IUCN warned.
Action is needed to make sure new oil palm plantations avoid clearing tropical rainforest or peatland areas, and to better manage untouched forest patches in the middle of plantations known as set aside areas.
The report also warned that palm oil certified as sustainable has so far only been marginally better in terms of preventing deforestation than non-certified oil.
But there could be potential for improving sustainability of the product, the IUCN said, and called for governments and businesses to honour their commitments.
And there is a need to limit demand for non-food uses of palm oil, such as biofuels, and to boost consumer awareness in the biggest using countries – India, China and Indonesia – to drive demand for certified oil, the IUCN said.
IUCN director general Inger Andersen said: “When you consider the disastrous impacts of palm oil on biodiversity from a global perspective, there are no simple solutions.
“Half of the world’s population uses palm oil in food, and if we ban or boycott it, other, more land-hungry oils will likely take its place.
“Palm oil is here to stay, and we urgently need concerted action to make palm oil production more sustainable, ensuring that all parties – governments, producers and the supply chain – honour their sustainability commitments.”
The report’s lead author and chairman of IUCN’s oil palm task force, Erik Meijaard added: “Palm oil is decimating South East Asia’s rich diversity of species as it eats into swathes of tropical forest.
“But if it is replaced by much larger areas of rapeseed, soy or sunflower fields, different natural ecosystems and species may suffer.
“To put a stop to the destruction we must work towards deforestation-free palm oil, and make sure all attempts to limit palm oil use are informed by solid scientific understanding of the consequences.”
Pic from IUCN