Assessing Sustainable Palm Oil Production With The Help of Dung Beetles

pygmy elephants

By Claudia Gray, Post-doctoral research fellow in ecology and conservation, University of Sussex, UK

Every time you go to the supermarket, you are likely to buy something containing palm oil. In the UK and the US, 10 – 50% of all items in an average shopping basket contain it. Palm oil is the world’s most widely used cooking oil. It is in a vast range of foods, including biscuits, pastries, pizzas, margarine, chocolate bars and ice cream. It’s in cosmetics like face-creams, mascara and lipstick. A derivative of palm oil is used to make soaps and detergents go frothy. It’s a remarkably versatile raw material, and it’s essential for many products we use every day.

Malaysia and Indonesia together produce 80% of global palm oil. In the last decade, about 50% of the land planted with oil palm in these countries had to be deforested. Because of this, the oil palm industry is criticised for having negative environmental impacts. However, it is responding fast. There are an increasing number of certification bodies that check that plantations meet certain social and environmental standards. More and more manufacturers are checking their supply chains to ensure that they support sustainable palm oil production.

But how are these social and environmental standards set?  What evidence are they based on?

A crucial first step is research that measures the environmental impacts of different management strategies. This is one of the goals of the SAFE (Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems) Project (http://www.safeproject.net), based in Malaysia. As part of this project, we have assessed one aspect of plantation management: the conservation of forest along river banks, also known as riparian reserves.

Protecting riparian forest in oil palm plantations helps to conserve biodiversity

Protecting riparian forest in oil palm plantations helps to conserve biodiversity

Riparian forest is legally protected in many countries because it acts as a buffer, limiting the flow of soil and agricultural chemicals into rivers and lakes.   However, the extent to which this habitat benefits forest-dwelling species on the river banks is poorly understood. To assess this issue, we surveyed dung beetles in riparian reserves. We then compared these communities to areas of oil palm and large areas of remaining forest. The beetles are easier to survey than many other animal groups, but they can indicate the abundance and diversity of lots of other species, such as the large furry mammals that produce the dung they need!

We found that even though the forest strips are very narrow (often only 50 – 150 m wide) and can be highly degraded, they still support more species than areas of oil palm. This is good news: protecting riverside forest not only improves water quality, but also benefits biodiversity. Our ongoing research will help establish which width of riparian forest optimises the environmental gains. Of course, protected large areas of primary rainforest will always be more important than preserving these fragments. Nevertheless, where oil palm is being cultivated, protecting riparian forest helps minimise the loss of local biodiversity.

The oil palm industry is an efficient way to produce vegetable oil, and a key source of income for a growing number of countries. As with all important agricultural industries, it is essential that there is robust scientific evidence influencing sustainability guidelines, and a consistent consumer demand for sustainable production.

There are many ways to check if the products you are buying source sustainable palm oil. Many of the big supermarket brands have already committed to sourcing sustainable palm oil, and are increasingly the traceability of their supply chain. As responsible consumers, each of us can check our favourite brands – it’s now easy to switch to one that uses sustainable palm oil.

Check your favourite brands through their website, or find more information here: http://www.betterpalmoil.org/whatcanyoudo

The first paper to be published on our research is open access available free to all at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ece3.1003/abstract

 Photos by Claudia Gray
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