The continued expansion of oil palm plantations will worsen the dual environmental crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, unless rainforests are better protected, warn scientists in the most comprehensive review of the subject to date.
Lead author, Emily Fitzherbert from the Zoological Society of London and University of East Anglia said: "There has been much debate over the role of palm oil production in tropical deforestation and its impacts on biodiversity. We wanted to put the discussion on a firm scientific footing."
Palm oil, used in food, cosmetics, biofuels and other products, is now the world's leading vegetable oil. It is derived from the fruit of the oil palm, grown on more than 50,000-square miles of moist, tropical lowland areas, mostly in Malaysia and Indonesia. These areas, once covered in tropical rainforest, the globe's richest wildlife habitat on land, are also home to some of the most threatened species on earth.
The review, published today in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, singles out deforestation associated with plantation development as by far the biggest ecological impact, but finds that the links between the two are often much more complex than portrayed in the popular press.
Co-author Matt Struebig, from Queen Mary, University of London, explains: "Most land-cover statistics do not allow us to distinguish where oil palm has actually driven forest clearance. Oil palm certainly has directly replaced tropical forest in some areas, but oil palm companies also often have close links with timber or paper pulp companies, giving additional motives for deforestation."
Within countries, oil palm is usually grown in a few productive areas, but it looks set to spread further. Demand is increasing rapidly and 'its potential as a future agent of deforestation is enormous', the study says.
Most of the suitable land left is within the last remaining large areas of trop
|Contact: Sian Halkyard|
Queen Mary, University of London