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Climate change Swiss study highlights environmental impact of palm oil plantations

A study by EPFL and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research warns that intensively farming this crop not only has a detrimental impact on the world's rainforests but is also associated with a large carbon footprint. 

The studyexternal link, published on Tuesday, focused on the environmental impact of palm oil cultivation in Indonesia. Together with Malaysia, the region accounts for almost 85% of global palm oil production.

The oil is very frequently used in processed foods, cosmetics and biofuels.

“While it is inexpensive, its environmental and social costs are high”, wrote the scientists in a press releaseexternal link published on Monday.

Every year, thousands of hectares of rainforest are destroyed to meet the ever-increasing global demand for the cheap product.

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Carbon footprint

The scientists, led by postdoctoral researcher Thomas Guillaume, analysed the carbon emissions of palm oil farming based on two years’ worth of data on the soil and vegetation in central Sumatra.

The data, which was collected by the University of Göttingen, showed that turning rainforests into oil palm plantations produces staggering levels of CO2 emissions.

“The quantity of carbon released when just one hectare of forest is cleared to grow oil palms is roughly equivalent to the amount of carbon produced by 530 people flying from Geneva to New York”, the researchers wrote.

Impact on the ecosystem

In addition to this, the monocrop plantations are constantly being cleared and treated with pesticides to facilitate farming, which leads to a significant loss of fertility and biodiversity in the soil.

In plantations, the amount of biomass which returns to the soil to feed living microorganism is up to 90% less than what is available in the rainforest.

All these factors “shed real doubt on the sustainability of this form of farming”, according to the study.

Practical advice

To mitigate the negative impact of the monocultures now, the researchers suggest that deforestation should only be done if the felled wood could be used for other purposes, rather than burning it.

In the long-term, the study recommends that plantations should be set up only in grassland plains or in the savanna, in order to reduce deforestation.