In the debate over the sustainability of palm oil, an important parameter to consider is the yield of the plantations – in effect, the efficiency by which each oil is produced, and the amount of land it takes up.
Why is this an important metric ? Because it can tell us about the global environmental impact of the crop.
Oil palm’s great advantage is that it can meet both the economic and environmental criteria at once: the maximum production level, and maximum returns for the farmers, using the minimum surface area (meaning that more land can be preserved for conservation).
Now the world average yield of oil palm is 3.9 tons of oil per hectare per year. This corresponds to 5 or 10 times the per hectare production of other oilseeds (such as sunflower, rapeseed, ….) This means a land-area saving of 90%. That is worth repeating: in comparison to other oilseeds, oil palm saves 90% more land, because of its superior yield.
Some oil palm plantations – at the higher end of the industry – have an exceptional yield of 8 tonnes per hectare per year and further enhance the attractiveness of this crop. It is beyond anything the competing oils can hope for.
- Rapeseed, has a production of 0.7 tonnes of oil / ha / year;
- Sunflower, oil of 0.6 tonnes / ha / year;
- Soybean oil 0.4 tonnes / ha / year.
It is therefore clear that the production of palm oil is more environmentally friendly in terms of land use, by a very large margin. Oil palm has the highest yield per hectare of all oilseed crops.
This production has grown steadily, moving from 15.2 million tonnes in 1995 to 60 million tonnes in 2014. Remarkably, to produce all of the global palm oil, we need less than half the area required to produce the same amount of oil along with all other oilseeds (sunflower, soybeans, rapeseed). Palm oil uses only 0.3% of the world’s land area, and yet produces over 30% of all of the world’s oils and fats.
It should also be remembered that this yield can be improved significantly. Smallholders make a vital contribution to global palm oil production, yet their per hectare yields are low when compared with large plantation companies. Smallholders also have a large share of global plantation area – 40 per cent in Malaysia, 90 per cent in Nigeria. Improvements to smallholder yields across the globe will substantially improve global yields – and the livelihoods of smallholders.
Not only does palm oil have a superior yield, it has multiple other environmental benefits compared to competing oilseeds –
- Substantially less fertiliser use
- Fewer pesticides needed to produce the oil
- Lower energy input needed per tonne of oil
Add to this that palm oil is the only oilseed crop that has a number of widely adopted certification standards for sustainability.
The conclusion: don’t believe what you read. Palm oil has the best environmental profile – for land use, pesticides fertilisers, and energy input – of any vegetable oil anywhere in the world.