Stanford researcher distills threats and benefits of Indonesia's palm oil revolution


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Workers unload oil palm fruits in a processing unit in North Sumatra in May 2012. In the past 25 years, palm oil has become the world’s leading source of vegetable oil. Indonesia is currently the world’s top palm oil producer. Researcher Joanne Gaskell is studying the threats and benefits of the palm oil business.
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Indonesia’s rainforests are among the world’s most extensive and biologically diverse environments. They are also among the most threatened. An increasing population and growing economy have led to rapid development. Logging, mining, colonization, and subsistence activities have all contributed to deforestation.

But the recent and booming expansion of palm oil plantations could cause the most harm to the rainforests, and is generating considerable concern and debate among industry leaders, environmental campaigners and scholars.

Joanne Gaskell in Sumatra, Indonesia.

Joanne Gaskell has dedicated her graduate studies to better understanding the tradeoffs and demand side of this dilemma. The doctoral candidate and researcher for the Center on Food Security and the Environment recently defended her thesis before an audience of advisers, friends, and fellow students from Stanford’s Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER).

“You need to understand the economics and politics of palm oil demand if you want to understand the regional dynamics of oil production and associated environmental impacts,” Gaskell said. “From a conservation perspective, this is as important as understanding supply since demand patterns affect the incentives facing producers.”

In the past 25 years, palm oil has become the world’s leading source of vegetable oil. Indonesia is currently the world’s top palm oil producer. Since the 1980s total land area planted to palm oil has increased by over 2,100 percent growing to 4.6 million hectares – the equivalent of six Yosemite National Parks. Plantation growth has predominately occurred on deforested native rainforest with major implications for global carbon emissions and biodiversity.

And Gaskell projects the demand for palm oil for food will double by 2035, requiring more than 8 million new hectares for production. Plantation expansion has already begun in Kalimantan and Papua, and Indonesian companies are now looking beyond Indonesia for new investment opportunities. Just as palm oil production spread from Malaysia to Indonesia to escape rising land and labor costs, palm oil production is now spreading to parts of Africa, where the crop is native, and Latin America.

Demand for palm oil is quickly rising in Asian markets – notably India and China – where it is used for cooking and industrial processes. Indonesia has the highest level of per capita palm oil consumption, resulting not just from population and income growth, but also from government policies that promoted the use of palm oil instead of coconut cooking oil.

“Taste preferences and investment more than international prices have driven palm oil demand in Indonesia,” Gaskell said.

Biodiesel production and speculation have also contributed to the rapid expansion of palm oil plantations, but to a lesser extent. Gaskell said the success of palm-based biodiesel hinges on remaining cheaper than petroleum diesel and whether governments subsidize the industry, as the United States has done with corn and soybean farmers.

Interest in palm oil as a cleaner burning fuel is already waning in Europe and the United States. The short-term carbon costs of deforesting and preparing land, fertilizing and managing the crops, then processing and transporting them outweigh the benefits. This is particularly true when palm oil plantations are grown on peat soils that release potent methane gas when drained for growing palm oil.

Palm oil seedlings ready for planting. Photo credit: Wakx/flikr

Growing plantations on ‘degraded land’, land that had been previously converted for other purposes, such as logging, is a much more favorable option over forest expansion. In theory, there is an abundance of degraded areas that can be profitably converted into palm oil plantations. But there are hurdles: The areas are not necessarily contiguous, making it difficult to organize a plantation, and ownership rights in these areas are often contested.

Palm oil’s considerable productivity and profitability offers wealth and development where help is most needed. Half of Indonesia’s population lives on less than $2 a day. But along with the negative ecological impacts, palm oil production increases competition for land and could exacerbate inequalities between the rich and the poor.

Gaskell believes sustainable expansion strategies are possible, and says smaller mills and different processing technologies are needed so production is affordable in scaled-down, more distributed systems.

Palm oil plantation in Cigudeg, Indonesia. Photo credit:  Achmad Rabin Taim/flickr

Her work is feeding an international conversation about palm oil production. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an international organization of producers, distributors, conservationists and other stakeholders, has promoted better ways of managing palm oil production and encouraging transparency and dialogue among corporate players, governments, and NGOs.

“We need to protect the most ecologically valuable landscapes from agricultural production and we need to make sure that, in areas where palm oil agriculture occurs, there are ecological management strategies in place such as riparian buffers, wildlife corridors, and treatment systems for mill effluent,” she said. “From a food security perspective, small palm oil producers, who might be giving up rice production or the production of other food staples, need strategies to minimize the economic risk associated with fluctuating global palm oil prices.”