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How “climate-smart” can palm oil become?

Posted: Mar 21, 2016 4 minute read Lim Shu Ling 846 views

Climate change and all things climate-related are becoming part and parcel of our everyday vocabulary. As we live through the effects of haze, drought, floods, unseasonably high or low temperatures – there is no denying that climate change is here now.

Coupled with our fascination with smart technology, it is little surprise that the term “climate-smart agriculture” is now becoming part of our modern lexicon.

Semantics aside, one of the major challenges we are facing is how to ensure that essential crops won’t fail when faced with changing climate and extreme weather phenomenon. Such failure can have catastrophic consequences like food shortages. Last year, UK charity Oxfam warned that due to the severe El Nio weather pattern, 10 million people would be at risk of facing hunger in Southern Africa and Central America, Ethiopia and parts of South East Asia due to poor harvests affected by drought.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation defines climate-smart agriculture as “an approach that helps to guide actions needed to transform and reorient agricultural systems to effectively support development and ensure food security in a changing climate.” This includes sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and incomes; adapting and building resilience to climate change; and reducing and/or removing greenhouse gas emissions, where possible.

Becoming climate-smart was essentially what over 400 people from around the world gathered to discuss last week at the fifth International Conference on Oil Palm and Environment (ICOPE). Leading scientists, government officials, civil society and industry representatives, senior researchers and academics all agreed: palm oil can and must become very climate-smart. Topics including breeding oil palm that will thrive in different climatic conditions and offering sustainable options for smallholders were tackled.

Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs Dr. Darmin Nasution officiating at the ICOPE 2016 opening ceremony
Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs Dr. Darmin Nasution officiating at the ICOPE 2016 opening ceremony

Like other agricultural commodities, palm oil must adapt to climate change. For millions of people around the world it is the best-value vegetable oil for daily use and is a huge part of our modern lives, found in everything from cookies to soap to the fuel you put in your car.

Millions of people also depend on palm oil for their livelihoods, from smallholders in the depths of Kalimantan, workers in refineries and mills to traders and shippers. In Indonesia alone 16 million people depend on palm oil for jobs and 60 towns and cities have their prosperity inextricably linked to palm oil.

There is no viable replacement for palm oil. No other vegetable oil is as productive per hectare as palm oil. Using any other oil in place of palm oil would mean having to open up more land for crops, leading to more deforestation and contributing to increased climate change. Many tropical countries also see it as the cash crop that has the most potential to raise the incomes of millions of small farmers in rural areas.

Palm oil: the most productive vegetable oil crop in the world
Palm oil: the most productive vegetable oil crop in the world

How is palm oil becoming climate-smart?

The short answer is through a combination of scientific advances in R&D and biotechnology, and the application of sustainable production practices.

Science is providing us with higher-yielding, more resilient and disease-resistant oil palm seed stock that will be better able to weather climate change. Our SMART Research Institute (SMARTRI) has been developing these qualities in our proprietary Dami Mas seeds. SMARTRI is also involved in an international Oil Palm Genome Project which is using molecular biology to complement and support conventional ways of breeding improved oil palm. All this can contribute to higher incomes and increased productivity for both big growers and smallholders. This is “smart” productivity which can also help the palm oil sector avoid having to expand agricultural land at the expense of forests.

 Researchers looking for ways to improve palm oil
Researchers looking for ways to improve palm oil

At the same time, adopting sustainable practices which focuses on protecting and conserving forests and eco-systems such as peat, as well as adopting strict Zero Burning policies will help to mitigate climate change.

Other sustainable solutions currently being practiced include capturing methane released from palm oil effluent and using that to produce electricity. Last year, through methane capture and from not having to use more fossil fuel for electricity, we cut our emissions by about 37,000 tonnes CO2eq. Palm oil effluents and nutrient-enriched waste from harvested fruit bunches are also recycled as organic fertiliser in our operations, lessening our dependence on synthetic chemicals and fossil-based fertilisers. This helps us reduce the degradation of soil and water quality.

The palm oil sector is often seen negatively, with many believing that it is responsible for wholesale destruction of tropical forests and wildlife habitats.

But the industry also has the potential to demonstrate successfully that sustainable economic growth can go hand-in-hand with forest conservation, better environmental practices and climate change mitigation and adaptation. It is in the interests of palm oil growers and everyone related to the sector to ensure that palm oil becomes climate-smart so that it is still going strong in the next 10, 20, 50 or 100 years. ICOPE 2016 showed us that some very smart people are working on improving the tools and the technology to achieve this.

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