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The rise of oil palm and silent forests

Over 50% of the products on supermarket shelves have palm oil as an ingredient. Its production has resulted in massive loss of virgin rainforests in South-East Asia. Now it's threatening the forests of our North-East

What’s common between chocolates, biscuits, ice creams, instant noodles, margarine, bread, pizzas, vegetable oil, ghee, soap, shampoo, washing detergent, lipstick, shaving gels, body oils and the various skincare products we use daily?

Palm oil.

On product labels, you may not find a direct reference to palm oil, but you are sure to find one of its many derivatives—vegetable oil, vegetable fat, sodium lauroyl lactylate/sulphate, hydrogenated palm glycerides, ethyl palmitate, octyl palmitate, palmityl alcohol, palm kernel, palm kernel oil, palm fruit oil, palmate, palmitate, palmitic acid, palmitoyl oxostearamide, glyceryl, stearate, sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium palm kernelate.

The use of palm oil goes back 5,000 years—it was discovered in an Egyptian tomb dated 3,000 BC. Today, research estimates that over 50% of the products on supermarket shelves have palm oil as an ingredient. Palm oil has a wide range of uses, from consumer retail food and personal care to pharmaceutical, animal feed and biofuel production and energy. Apart from this, 75% of palm oil is globally used for cooking. There is still no alternative to palm oil.

With far more yield (and low production costs) than any other vegetable oil crop, palm oil is the go-to oil for rapid economic growth. But where does so much palm oil come from? It is extracted from the fruit of the oil-palm tree Elaeis guineensis, a plant native to Africa with a life cycle of 20-25 years.

To meet the global demand for palm oil, large tracts of pristine rainforests have been cleared in Indonesia and Malaysia for oil-palm tree plantations. The expansion of oil-palm farming is considered one of the biggest causes for the loss of virgin rainforests in South-East Asia. Extensive palm cultivation has led to a huge loss of biodiversity, pushing many species such as the orangutan, elephant, rhino and tiger to the brink of extinction in the region.

Eighty-five per cent of palm oil is produced in Malaysia (20 million metric tonnes) and Indonesia (35 million metric tonnes). More than 50% of these plantations have replaced natural forests according to The Impacts Of Oil Palm on Recent Deforestation And Biodiversity Loss, a study published in the July issue of PLOS ONE, a peer-review journal. The same trend can be seen in other South Asian countries such as Myanmar, Papua New Guinea and Thailand.

November 2016 data from the United States department of agriculture (USDA) estimates that global palm oil production (2016-17) will be 64.5 million metric tonnes—an increase of about 10% around the globe from 2015.

India is one of the largest importers of palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia for its domestic consumption. The ministry of agriculture estimates per capita consumption of vegetable oils at the rate of 16kg per year per person and expects demand to touch 20.4 million tonnes by 2017.

To curb imports and become self-reliant, India’s agriculture sector has taken giant steps to increase palm oil production in the country. The ministry of agriculture and farmers welfare has allocated Rs500 crore in the current financial year for the implementation of the National Mission on Oilseeds and Oil Palm (NMOOP) in 29 states.

Already, large patches of tropical forest, especially jhum cultivation patches, in Mizoram have been converted into oil-palm plantations. Other biodiversity-rich North-Eastern states, including Sikkim, have followed suit. These plantations, which replace tropical forests, are known as “silent forests". “Oil-palm plantations are nowhere comparable to primary (or even degraded) forests in terms of ecosystems services such as carbon sequestration, water security and soil protection," says Umesh Srinivasan, research scientist, National Centre For Biological Sciences (NCBS). Ironically, these “silent forests" are a boost to national forest cover figures. India’s forest cover is 21.34% (70.17 million hectares) of the geographical area of the country in which natural, very dense forest is only 2.61% (85,904 sq. km).

Like the threatened orangutan in South-East Asia, the Western hoolock gibbon, the only ape found in the country, is now under threat as its habitats in the North-Eastern forests are undergoing rapid change.

With no sustainable farming plans, this is an example of how our agricultural policies are not in sync with environmental policies. India is taking part in the 13th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 13), Convention on Biological Diversity, in Cancun, Mexico (4-17 December), where the focus is on integrating and mainstreaming biodiversity to safeguard nature. It is for us to see if the government can learn from global good practices to restore degraded patches of tropical forest and find sustainable practices to accommodate the vast demand and cultivation of oil palm.

An effort to come up with an alternative for palm oil has been futile so far. However, scientists from the University of Bath are offering some hope. They have successfully cultivated a variety of yeast, Metschnikowia pulcherrima, which has properties identical to palm oil. But whether it can be produced on an industrial scale still needs to be tested.

Out In The Wild is a column on the good, bad and ugly of nature conservation. Ananda tweets at @protectwildlife.

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