Land used for palm oil production could be nearly doubled without expanding into protected or high-biodiversity forests, according to a new study published in the journal Global Environmental Change in July 2016. The study maps land suitable for palm oil production on a global scale, while taking into account environmental and climate considerations.
Palm oil production has expanded massively, from 6 million hectares in 1990 to 16 million in 2010, an area about the size of Uruguay. The oil, which is used for cooking and as a food additive, now accounts for about 30 per cent of all vegetable oil used worldwide.
Palm oil demand is expected to grow
Palm oil is controversial, in particular because much of this expansion came at the expense of biodiversity-rich tropical forests, which were cut to make room for new plantations. But oil palm farming has also contributed to lifting millions of people out of poverty in Indonesia and Malaysia, the top palm-oil producing countries. And an important share of palm oil producers are small-holder farmers who rely on the commodity as their primary income.
With palm oil as the number one cooking oil in Asia, where populations are rising, demand for the oil is expected to continue growing, and many developing countries are looking to expand their production. Yet it was not clear how much land is available for expansion.
Nearly 20 million hectares of land could potentially be available for future palm oil production
From a purely biophysical perspective, the researchers found that nearly 1.37 billion hectares of land globally are suitable for oil palm cultivation, in Africa, Central and South America, and Asia. From this, they then removed any land which is already being used for other purposes, such as farming, residences, or cities. Finally, the researchers ruled out areas that are protected by law, as well as forests that are particularly valuable from a biodiversity or carbon-storage perspective.
With all of these areas removed, the resulting map includes an area of 19.3 million hectares of very suitable land which could potentially be available for future production. This is slightly more than the current extent of palm oil production, 18.1 million hectares. However, about half of this area is more than a ten-hour drive away from the closest city, which might not allow for economically profitable oil production.
Reference: Pirker, J., Mosnier, A., Kraxner, F., Havlik, P. and Obersteiner, M. (2016) What are the limits to oil palm expansion? Global Environmental Change, 40, 73-81 doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2016.06.007
Photo source: Rainforest Action Network / Flickr.com