Palm Oil Production Can Be Sustainable, Scientists Find
If you've found yourself swapping out your peanut butter after reading "palm oil" on the ingredient list, new research suggests a hopeful future for the widely used ingredient.
Scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research (WSL) have studied palm cultivation to help develop a more sustainable method for growing palm oil trees.
To do this, researchers analyzed the carbon footprint of a palm oil plantation over time. The crop they studied was planted 56 years ago in an empty pasture in Colombia.
After calculating carbon storage over the decades, scientists found no decrease in carbon since the field was planted. This news is huge, considering palm oil production has been known to increase carbon emissions, which is linked to climate change.
The study can provide insight into the overall health and quality of soil (not just the top layer) when converting degraded pastures into oil palm plantations.
When pastures, like the neglected one in Colombia, are planted with large populations of trees, the healthy roots, trunks, and leaves of the palm trees promote carbon storage into the soil. The trees also increase biodiversity by creating habitats for wildlife and insects.
Every 25 to 30 years, the palm oil trees are cut down, according to Juan Carlos Quezada, Ph.D. and lead author of the study. Cutting them down might seem wasteful, but the decomposed parts of the tree actually nourish the soil. The cyclical process of growing and cutting promotes the health of the land rather than stripping away at it.
Since oil palm trees are replaced every 25 to 30 years, this study is the first of its kind to look at the effects of oil palm tree production over the long term, according to Quezada.
The research is nascent but still promising for countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, which rely on palm oil production for income and the many others who use the product in everything from packaged goods to makeup and even cleaning products.
The process is similar to regenerative agriculture, a method of holistic land management that mimics nature rather than working against it. The folks responsible for EPIC Provisions implement the strategy on their ranch in Texas, and we think many others are going to catch on.
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