Equilibrium & Sustainability

Anti-deforestation push putting other ecosystems at risk: study

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An agreement intended to prevent the clearing of tropical forests has put millions of acres of other forests and grasslands worldwide at risk, a new study has found.

Guidelines passed in 2018 urging “zero deforestation” in producing palm oil — a key ingredient in everything from chocolates to cosmetics — have still allowed global producers to clear wide swaths of grasslands and dry forests worldwide, according to a paper published on Monday in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Producers could clear 95 million hectares (235 million acres) of forests and grasslands worldwide — an area equivalent to about twice the size of the state of California — without technically violating the industry’s “zero deforestation” agreements, the study found.

These landscapes — largely in Africa and on the periphery of the Amazon — house huge reserves of carbon and support a diverse array of threatened species.

Converting these grasslands and forests to palm plantations could reduce “the ranges of one quarter of vertebrate species that are currently threatened with extinction,” lead author Susannah Fleiss of the University of York said in a statement.

“Plantation development would replace the existing habitat in these areas, disrupting the ability of the species present to find food and water, and affecting their migration routes,” Fleiss added.

Palm oil is a fat- and nutrient-dense food native to West Africa. But for more than a century, plantation owners in Southeast Asia have cleared tropical forests to make way for new palm plantations.

In 2018, consumer concerns about the ecological toll of palm oil led the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil to set out guidelines urging “zero deforestation” in producing the crop.

Since the mid-2000s, companies such as Nestlé and Unilever — the latter of which funded the University of York study — have been under intense consumer and activist pressure to stop buying palm oil from plantations that deforest tropical rainforests.

Palm oil is a high-yield “miracle crop [that] supports the livelihoods of millions of people in tropical countries around the world,” University of York ecologist Jane Hill said in a statement.

The key ingredient stands “at the sharp edge of debate on how we can balance the need to feed the world and sustain livelihoods, while protecting nature,” Hill added.

The York professor said the solution to protecting habitats is to extend the protections currently afforded to tropical landscapes even further.

Rather than boycotting or banning the crop, “we need to ensure effective international policies and governance to protect, not just tropical rainforest, but tropical grasslands and dry forests too,” Hill said. 

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