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article imagePalm oil production's adverse affects on the environment

By Karen Graham     Jul 2, 2014 in Environment
Palm oil is found in thousands of products we use and consume every day, from bread, and shampoo to multiple items in between. But now, increased consumption has resulted in unwanted side effects to the environment.
Humankind has used palm oil for thousands of years. A substance thought to be palm oil was found in a tomb in Abydos dating back to 3,000 BCE, leading to the belief that Arab traders brought the oil into ancient Egypt. Palm oil has also been used in West and Central African countries as a cooking oil. European traders purchased it as an industrial lubricant during Britain's Industrial Revolution.
By the end of the 1880s. palm oil was the major export of some West African countries like Ghana and Nigeria. But that has all changed. Global demand has increased to the point that it is the most widely produced vegetable oil worldwide. More than 54 million tons were produced in 2011, with over 90 percent going to the manufacture of food products, detergents, cosmetics, candles. About five percent is used to produce bio-fuels.
Palm oil production became so successful that by 2008, Indonesia and Malaysia took over global production, accounting for 34 percent of total tons produced. That figure rose dramatically in 2011 when 90 percent of total global production of palm oil was from the two nations. But while palm oil has benefited these countries economically, the deforestation of the rainforests for palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia has had a profound affect on the environment.
Traditional oil palm plantations that are managed and owned by ordinary people in Kampar regency  Ri...
Traditional oil palm plantations that are managed and owned by ordinary people in Kampar regency, Riau.
New study on palm oil plantations and affects on water quality
The clearing of the tropical rainforests to plant oil palms releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas responsible for climate change. Worse still, destroying such a diverse ecosystem and planting a single crop over miles of land also destroyed animal habitats. Recent studies by researchers with Stanford University and the University of Minnesota are now reporting a significant deterioration in water quality, threatening freshwater streams and putting the health of millions of people at risk.
The new study was reported in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences and gives an interesting perspective on the degree of intensity and the persistence of the impacts that deforestation have created, even in fully grown oil palm plantations.
Land management, including the clearing, addition of fertilizers and pesticides, and the resultant processing of crude palm oil all leave their mark on the environment. Runoff from sediments that accumulate from these activities pollute the streams running through the plantations, while removal of plant life from along the banks of the streams destroys plants needed for food and habitat protection for organisms living in the streams.
Deforestation damage
Generally, in clearing of a rainforest, the larger more valuable trees are cut first. The remaining brush, plants and stubble is burned. If parts of the forest are on peatland, it is drained. The thing is, peatlands store vast amounts of carbon. The clearing of a single hectare of rainforest peatland releases up to 6,000 tons of CO2. As of today, rainforest deforestation accounts for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, a very large amount.
Ongoing deforestation and palm oil plantations leave no room for the orangutan.
Ongoing deforestation and palm oil plantations leave no room for the orangutan.
Liza Gross
The loss of habitat and destruction of an ecosystem as a result of deforestation is devastating as far as animals are concerned. Indonesia's rainforests contain the some of the world's most diverse environments, home to many endangered plants and animals, like orangutans, Sumatran tigers and the Borneo rhino. These animals and others cease to exist when their habitat is lost. In 2006, as many as 1,500 orangutans were clubbed to death by oil palm plantation workers because the animals were trespassing.
Water quality deterioration is a new consideration. "Although we previously documented carbon emissions from land use conversion to oil palm, we were stunned by how these oil palm plantations profoundly alter freshwater ecosystems for decades," said study co-author and team leader Lisa M. Curran, a professor of ecological anthropology at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
Findings on water quality
The researchers conducted their water quality studies on small streams coming from the palm oil plantations, farms and forests around and inside Gunung Palung National Park, a federally protected area. They found that the water temperature in streams coming from recently cleared land was as much as seven degrees Fahrenheit warmer than forest streams. Sediment concentrations were almost 550 times higher than forest streams.
The researchers also recorded an increase in stream metabolism. This is a measure of the rate that a stream consumes oxygen, an important factor in the health of a waterway, especially during a drought. Of concern is the impact this land use will have on fisheries, and the coastal and coral reef areas. At the present time, little is known about the potential effects in the long term because no one thought about it.
Newly cleared farmland in Kerinci Seblat National Park  Sumatra
Newly cleared farmland in Kerinci Seblat National Park, Sumatra
Schlegel (CC BY-SA 4.0)
"Local communities are deeply concerned about their freshwater sources. Yet the long-term impact of oil palm plantations on freshwater streams has been completely overlooked until now," Curran said. "We hope this work will highlight these issues and bring a voice to rural communities' concerns that directly affect their livelihoods."
The big issue that the report pointed out is the stripping of ground-cover near streams and other waterways and the need to redesign plantations so that dense roadways don't intersect at waterways. Changing to better practices, such as leaving ground-cover next to streams and changing roads have been recommended by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil will. Yet, Carlson said, "Our findings suggest that converting logged forests and diverse smallholder agricultural lands to oil palm plantations may be almost as harmful to stream ecosystems as clearing intact forests."
According to the researchers, the continued deforestation could result in a "perfect storm" that would combine the crops environmental effects with the effects from an El Nino-induced drought. The report said, "This could cause collapse of freshwater ecosystems and significant social and economic hardships in a region,"
More about Palm oil, oil palm plantations, Rain forest, Water quality, study on water quality
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