There has been a rise in the demand for vegetable oil since the 1970s, reaching an expected all-time high in 2009-2013 (around 200-340 million tons) according to acclaimed author of the “The Oil Palm”, and researcher R.H.V. Corley (2009). In terms of palm oil consumption, in the early 2000s the consumption was around 85 million tons per year, whereas in 2012 it increased by 77%, reaching over 150 million tons. This rapid expansion of the palm oil is due to changes in dietary habits in developing countries such as China and India, which currently account for 30% of the total edible oil consumption.
The palm oil industry has generated significant economic growth in developing countries– most notably in South-East Asia (in Indonesia and Malaysia) and Latin America (in Colombia and Ecuador). According to the article “How will oil palm expansion affect biodiversity?” in the journal of Trends in Ecology and Evolution, this development has come at a high cost to the environment.
The key environmental problems associated with palm oil production consist of:
1. Climate change. Agriculture is both affected by climate change but also contributes to it. In particular, the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers in conventional agriculture is a major contributor to global warming and high nitrogen concentrations in the soil.
2. Loss of biodiversity. The habitat destruction is leading to the demise of critically endangered species such as the Sumatran tiger, the Asian rhinoceros and Sumatran Orangutan. Biodiversity loss can also affect human health, as it is largely dependent on the quality of the ecosystem in which we live – loss of plant or animal species can affect the quality of water or soil according to www.oecd.org OECD 2005 .
Palm oil producers have to take these changes into account and to minimize their impact on the environment. But every problem has a solution. So what is the solution in this case?
Palm oil producers should focus on sustainable and organic agricultural production. It will help by:
1. Minimizing the impact on climate change- Organic agriculture produces a sequestration of CO2 in the soil, reducing the greenhouse gases emission. Organic farming could reduce up to 40% of global greenhouse gases emissions out of the atmosphere each year.
2. Preserving biodiversity- Organic agriculture helps in preserving fertility of the ecosystem. In addition, using sustainable agriculture techniques will not only enable to preserve biodiversity but also to ensure that there is enough to feed the world and increase the livelihood of farmers.
In this respect, investing in organic and sustainable palm plantation practices is a long-term commitment, and Natural Habitats is a good example of it. For Natural Habitats, sustainability is a combination of organic and fair trade, which is achieved by ensuring fair and equal opportunities to all the farmers while working in harmony with the environment. The operations of Natural Habitats’ in Ecuador and Sierra Leone are settled in areas where no critically endangered species has been identified; furthermore, the group invests in several programs to enhance biodiversity, and to protect the environment while training, and empowering small farm holders.
1. Natural Habitats minimizes the impact of climate change: Natural Habitats’ independent small farm holders have plantations on already degraded land or grassland, which enables the preservation of the primary forests.
2. Natural Habitats focuses on preserving biodiversity by focusing on environmental activities such as:
· Using organic and sustainable farming practices to conserve biodiversity;
· Providing farmers with the necessary skills and information about sustainable and organic farming;
· Reducing carbon footprint by reducing CO2 emissions and converting organic waste into organic compost;
· Using 1% sales for social and environmental stewardship programs.
Overall, Natural Habitats not only focuses on the 3P of People, Planet and Profit but also, on Development–uplifting the livelihood of farmers through empowerment and creating social programs for the growth of the community on areas such as: nutrition, education and health. More about our program can be found here .