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Target degraded and agricultural land for palm oil production

Target degraded and agricultural land for palm oil production

Indonesia's plans to double palm oil production by 2020 have obvious financial benefits, but implications for food, biodiversity and carbon stocks are not so clear.

A new model predicts the impacts of five possible palm oil production strategies and indicates the best approach is to target degraded and agricultural land that is most productive for palm oil.

In 2009 43.4 million tons of palm oil were produced globally, 47 per cent of which was produced by Indonesia. This has contributed greatly to the economy and last year Indonesia indicated that it plans to double the amount of land used for palm oil production 'without disturbing forest preservation efforts'1. However, this will have an impact on the environment, reduce land available for food production and generally increase carbon emissions due to land use change, which already make up 80 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions in Indonesia.

Researchers developed a computer model which simulated the effects of five future scenarios for palm oil production to predict the impact of different strategies on forest area, biodiversity, carbon stored in peat and biomass and annual rice production. The five scenarios were as follows:

  1. 'Business as usual' (BAU), or land-sparing approach, where palm oil production expands, using the most productive areas for palm oil first, then progressing to the least productive areas
  2. Food production scenario, where food supply is protected by expanding palm oil production into the least productive areas for rice first
  3. Forest preservation scenario, where palm oil production moves first from degraded lands (defined as 'barren land', 'brush', 'swamp', or 'swamp brush', and primarily located in Borneo and Sumatra) to agricultural land, and then from agricultural land to forests.
  4. Carbon conservation scenario, where palm oil production expands from areas with the lowest carbon stock, e.g. some kind of grasslands, to those with highest carbon stock, e.g. peatlands and old-growth rainforests
  5. A hybrid approach with several priorities that targets land to maximise palm oil production whilst minimising impacts on food, forest cover and carbon stocks.

The results indicated that Indonesian palm oil production could double without necessarily having an impact on forest cover or biodiversity. All scenarios incurred trade-offs but the hybrid approach provided the most optimal solution. It allowed palm oil production to double by bringing an additional 3.4 million hectares of land into cultivation, targeted at degraded and agricultural lands, with no loss in biodiversity or forest cover. Unlike the other scenarios it targeted land that was particularly productive for palm oil, but least suitable for food production (e.g. marginal lands) and with the lowest carbon stock. This limited loss in food production to 1.9 million tons and loss in carbon stock to 191.6 million tons.

Similarly, the forest preservation scenario had no forest cover or biodiversity impacts (until all suitable degraded and agricultural land had been used), but there was a net carbon loss of 479 million tons and reduction in rice production of 10 million tons per year. This is primarily due to significant land use change - 5.4 million hectares would be turned over, compared with 3.1 million hectares under the BAU approach and 3.4 million under the hybrid approach.

The BAU scenario required the least land because cultivation would be focused on the best land for growing palms. Its efficiency of land use meant that it conserved greater carbon stocks than the forest preservation approach (a loss of 278.2 million tons of carbon compared to 479 million tons) and maintained greater food production (a loss of 5.1 million tons compared to 9.8 million tons under the carbon conservation scenario). However, there was a 0.43 per cent biodiversity loss.

While the carbon conservation scenario maintained most carbon (an increase of 158.8 million tons in stored carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere), its impact on food production was significant (9.8 million tons). The food production scenario incurred the greatest loss in biodiversity at 0.7 per cent.


Source: Koh, L.P. & Ghazoul, J. (2010) Spatially explicit scenario analysis for reconciling agricultural expansion, forest protection, and carbon conservation in Indonesia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 107(24):11140-11144.


Science for Environment Policy, issue 208: A service from the European Commission

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