The environmental impacts of palm oil in context

This is a Preprint and has not been peer reviewed. The published version of this Preprint is available: This is version 10 of this Preprint.

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Erik Meijaard , Thomas Brooks, Kimberly Carlson, Eleanor M. Slade , John Garcia Ulloa, David Gaveau, Janice Ser Huay Lee, Truly Santika, Diego Juffe-Bignoli , matthew struebig, Serge A Wich, Marc Ancrenaz, Lian Pin Koh, Nadine Zamira, Jesse F. Abrams , Herbert H. T. Prins , Cyriaque N. Sendashonga, Daniel Murdiyarso, Paul R. Furumo, Nicholas Macfarlane , Rachel Hoffmann, Marcos Persio, Adrià Descals, Zoltan Szantoi , Douglas Sheil 


Delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) requires balancing demands on land between agriculture (SDG 2) and biodiversity (SDG 15). The production of vegetable oils in general, and palm oil in particular, is perhaps the most controversial illustration of these trade-offs. Global annual demand for vegetable oil for food, animal feed and fuel is currently at 210 million tons1 (Mt), with 84 Mt of this comprising palm oil2. Oil palm covers ca. 21.5 - 23.4 million hectares (Mha)3 —all in the humid tropics, with other oil crops covering at least 425 Mha4. Most oil palm expansion has occurred in Borneo, Sumatra, and the Malay Peninsula, where >90% of global palm oil is produced5. Although direct conversion of forest to oil palm caused less than 0.5% of global deforestation between 2000 and 20136, this percentage is locally as high as 58%7. Negative environmental impacts include wildlife declines, greenhouse gas emissions, and atmospheric pollution from deforestation and the draining and burning of peatlands. However, oil palm generally produces more oil per area than other oil crops8, is economically viable in sites unsuitable for most other crops, and offers otherwise scarce economic opportunities to many rural people9. As global demand for vegetable oils increases to a projected 307 Mt by 205010, consideration of the relative yields, land requirements, and environmental impacts of different oil crops is crucial to guide decision-making. Meeting this demand either through continued expansion of palm oil production, or through increasing land allocation for producing other types of vegetable oil, will trade-off against biodiversity, food security, climate change, land degradation and rural livelihoods.



Agriculture, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Food Science, Life Sciences, Other Food Science, Other Life Sciences, Terrestrial and Aquatic Ecology


agriculture, biodiversity, conservation, forests, Indonesia, Malaysia, oil palm, oilseeds, rapeseed, SDGs, soybean, sustainable development goals, wildlife


Published: 2020-01-10 12:49

Last Updated: 2020-12-08 08:34

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CC BY Attribution 4.0 International

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Conflict of interest statement:
None of co-authors in this study, except DJB, as noted in the Acknowledgments, received funding for conducting this review, although the information was partly based on a study funded by the Global Environment Facility. Several authors are members of and have received funding from the IUCN Oil Palm Task Force, a group tasked by the IUCN members to investigate the sustainability of palm oil. Several authors work for conservation organizations and several authors have done work paid by palm oil companies or the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.