Under fire for their poor environmental record, makers of the world's
top vegetable oil are turning to scientists for advice on how to make
their industry sustainable
Figure 1 Bumper crop. Oil palm fruit bunches being moved by rail to
the mill at United Plantations.
CREDIT: R. STONE/SCIENCE
TELUK INTAN, MALAYSIA--A canary-yellow machine lumbers onto a fallow oil
palm field and, with a roar of its motor, rips into a pile of fronds and
shavings of dead trunks. As plantation operators and scientists observe
the mulching process, their guide, Cheriachangel Mathews, a senior
manager at United Plantations' Jendarata Estate, warns that the group
has been infiltrated. "We have a journalist with us," he says. "I want
him and all of you to know that nothing here--nothing--is wasted."
Mathews has good reason to be concerned about the take-home message.
With prices soaring, palm oil, Malaysia's number-one crop, has recently
surpassed soybean as the top-selling vegetable oil in the world. Oil
squeezed from palm fruit bunches is an ingredient in myriad products,
from ice cream to soap, and it is being touted as a biofuel that can
stem reliance on fossil fuels. But the industry has been taking a
mulching in the press. Environmental groups have accused plantations of
razing forests to plant the lucrative crop and slaughtering orangutans
that pilfer and eat the fruit.
Hoping to turn over a new frond, the oil palm industry is now
endeavoring to demonstrate its sustainability. It faces an uphill
battle. A just-completed review by three dozen academics details species
declines pinned on the oil palm, a native of West Africa that has become
a dominant feature of Southeast Asia's landscape. It is an "unavoidable
fact that the replacement of diverse tropical forest with an exotic
monoculture significantly impacts biodiversity," states the Biodiversity
and Oil Palm Briefing Document. It will be presented at a gathering in
November of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), in which
industry officials, scientists, and other parties are hammering out a
voluntary certification scheme for minimizing harm to the environment.
Scientists and like-minded industry insiders hoping to curb destructive
growth may get help from the market. Rising palm oil prices are
strangling demand for palm as a biofuel, Edgare Kerkwijk, managing
director of the BioX Group, a renewable-energy company in Singapore,
told the International Palm Oil Congress in Kuala Lumpur late last
month. That's bitter news for companies in Southeast Asia that have been
racing to ramp up capacity to process palm into biodiesel. With crude
palm oil now topping $700 per ton, "we believe that palm oil is not a
long-term biofuel," Kerkwijk said.
The industry, nevertheless, is riding high. According to the Food and
Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), global palm oil
production last year was 37 million tons, 85% from Indonesia and
Malaysia. Palm oil yields--2.8 tons per hectare, on average--are seven
times those of soybean oil, according to FAO. Aiming for even higher
yields, the Asiatic Centre for Genome Technology in Kuala Lumpur and
Synthetic Genomics, a company in Rockville, Maryland, founded by J.
Craig Venter, in July announced a partnership to sequence and analyze
the oil palm genome.
Higher yields are vital to an industry looking to clean up its act. Seen
from the air, peninsular Malaysia is a patchwork of settlements and
plantations interspersed with forest; in 2003, the peninsula had more
than half of the country's 3.7 million hectares of oil palm. Malaysian
officials maintain that plantations are now allowed to expand only onto
existing agricultural fields or degraded land. Indonesia is a different
story. There, renegade plantations fuel expansion through timber sales.
"At the state level, there are no clear limits on plantation growth,"
says Reza Azmi, director of Wild Asia, a company in Kuala Lumpur that is
advising plantations in both countries on how to limit their
RSPO was formed 5 years ago to turn the positive environmental record of
outfits such as United Plantations into a competitive advantage through
the certification of "sustainable palm oil." To bolster this effort, a
network of researchers drew on a wealth of data to assess the impact of
plantations on biodiversity.
An advanced draft of the document provided to Science paints a grim
picture. The authors, led by Emily Fitzherbert of the Zoological Society
of London, summarize research documenting shifts in biodiversity in and
around plantations. In Sumatra, for example, less than 10% of birds and
mammals found in primary forests live in plantations, and more than 75%
of bat species were lost; in Thailand, 41 bird species were found in
plantations, compared to 108 species in nearby tropical forests.
"Plantations need to accept that oil palm is not compatible with
biodiversity," says report coauthor Matthew Struebig of Queen Mary,
University of London, U.K. "Environmental groups and scientists need to
work with, not against, the industry to help them minimize this impact."
The document delivers a clear bottom line to RSPO: "The most immediate
and important action needed to prevent further biodiversity loss is to
ensure that oil palm expansion does not contribute to deforestation."
The report also highlights how proactive management can reduce species
losses, for example by salvaging native stands inside plantations. Wild
Asia is working with plantations on plans to link fragments into
"natural corridors" and set aside 50 of every 2000 hectares for forest
regeneration. "Two years ago," says Azmi, "this discussion would never
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