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ENVIRONMENTAL ATTRIBUTES OF
OIL PALM
 
 
 
 

The oil palm industry has been environmentally conscious and eco-friendly since its very beginning.

Malaysia, as one of the world's major palm oil industry is a highly regulated industry. Currently, the industry is adhered to more than 15 laws and regulations including the Land Acquisition Act 1960, Environmental Quality Act 1974, Environmental Quality (Clean Air Regulations) 1978,  Pesticides Act 1974 (Pesticides Registration Rules), Occupational Safety and Health Act (1977), and Protection of Wildlife Act 1972. The industry is also complying with Hazard & Critical Control Points (HACCP) and the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) requirements. Being sensitive and proactive on current environmental concerns, the industry is actively pursuing ISO 14000 standard series discussions and formulations notably on climate change, life cycle analysis (LCA), ecolabeling & Design for the Environment (DfE), environmental communications, and environmental management system (EMS).

It is important to note that the industry is also participating in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) discussions. This roundtable is a platform to reach mutual understanding at the international level among various palm oil stakeholders namely; oil palm growers, palm oil processors/traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, investment organizations, social or development NGOs and environmental or nature conservation NGOs. This understanding would be translated into common actions towards achieving sustainability of palm oil production and use in its entire supply chain.

60% of Malaysia’s land mass consists of forests, including some of the world’s oldest virgin forests. Only 20% of Malaysia’s land mass is under agricultural cultivation, with less than 2/3 of that dedicated to oil palm plantations. Moreover, the expansion of plantations has only utilized lands formerly used to grow rubber, cocoa or coconut, rather than forest land.

Oil palms are no different from other forms of plant life in sequestering carbon dioxide from and returning to the atmosphere. The cumulative beneficial effects of the photosynthesis are significant considering the relatively high leaf area index of the perennial green cover provided by the oil palm plantations.

Studies have shown that oil palm plantations are as effective as rainforests in acting as carbon sink-areas of dry matter that serve to absorb the harmful greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Oil palm plantations are capable of assimilating up to 36.5 tonnes of dry matter/ha/year, which is significantly more than the 25.7 tonnes of dry matter/ha/year assimilated by rainforests. With the industry in its growth phase, most oil palms are still growing to maturity; and oil palm agriculture helps to enrich soil organic matter. Being a C3 plant it can better exploit high CO2 level than C4 plant species, e.g. lower photo respiration and increase water use efficiency. A study on seedlings show that doubling of CO2 can increase the photosynthetic rate by nearly 10-fold.

Furthermore, care is taken to minimize the use of chemical fertilizers in the oil palm plantation through the use of nutrient-rich recyclable residues. These are generated in the plantation and in the milling process. Environmentally friendly methods of pest control have been successfully employed, thus reducing the use of chemical pesticides.

Zero burning concept, a new technique that complies with the Environmental Quality Act 1974 and the Environment Quality (Clean Air Regulations) 1978, includes the disposal of old palms by shredding and decomposition in the fields, thereby avoiding air pollution and helping to return plant nutrients to the soil. Milling and refining techniques have consequently been modified so that they generate minimum waste effluent.

These commitments of good agricultural practices, zero waste and recycling has in fact led to the creation of new products from oil palm using fronds, trunks, bunch waste and refinery distillate.

The industry and its R&D arm are continuously working to improve the industry’s environmental performance. Various approaches and technologies aimed to reduce the impact of the industry on the environment have been converted to successful practices in oil palm plantation, palm oil mill, and refineries. The industry envisions achieving the highest standards of sustainability of palm oil. 

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ENVIRONMENTAL ATTRIBUTES OF OIL PALM

 
 
 
 

Alleviating Global Warming

An oil palm plantation with its perennial green cover and closed canopy displays the main features of a tropical rainforest. It is also a more efficient carbon sink than a tropical rainforest and helps absorb greenhouse gases. A study has shown that an oil palm plantation assimilates 44.0 tonnes of dry matter per hectare per year compared to 25.7 tonnes of dry matter per hectare per year a rainforest assimilates.
 
Interestingly, dry matter production remains high throughout the entire 25-year economic life cycle of oil palm trees. In Malaysia, oil palm is grown on about 56% of agricultural land, occupying some 11.75% of the country’s total land areas. However, the current areas under oil palm plantations are within the limit of the allocated hectares permitted under the National Agricultural Plan 3 (NAP 3) 2000-2010.
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Conserving Soil and Water Quality

During planting, several measures are taken to prevent soil degradation and conserve soil fertility. On hilly land, contour terracing is carried along steep slopes. Silt pits help reduce the length of slope while trapping soil and plant nutrients. Pruned fronds placed along the slope minimize soil erosion and fertilizer loss. Very often, hilly forest areas with slopes greater than 250 are left untouched.
 
Leguminous cover crops fix nitrogen in the soil, recycle organic matter, improve soil structure, keep out weeds, reduce soil compaction and erosion, and promote rainfall acceptance. In oil palm plantations at least 6 species of leguminous crops are planted for the benefits they provide.
 
In coastal plantings, emphasis is placed on proper drainage and water management. This prevents over-draining and deterioration of fragile acids sulphate and peat soils.
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Oxygen to the Air

Oil palm trees are unique in a way that they have higher leaf area index that allows them to have better photosynthetic efficiency. This results in the palm trees to produce more oxygen to the air and absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. A study has shown that an oil palm tree has a leaf area index of 5.6 which is comparable to that of the rainforests.
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Efficient Land Utilization

Inarguably, oil palm provides the highest yield of oil per hectare per year compared to the other oil-bearing crops. A comparison study has shown that a hectare of oil palm yields 10 times more oil than other major oil crops.  An average yield of 4 - 5 tonnes of crude oil per hectare of land with best fields give as high as 7 - 8 tonnes of crude oil per hectare makes oil palm the most efficient oil-bearing crop in the world.
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Positive Energy Balance

Compared to other major oilseed crops, the cultivation and processing of oil palm requires less input of fertilizers, pesticides, and fuel energy to produce one tonne of oil. A study has shown that oil palm requires about 19.2 GJ of energy per hectare per year to produce one tonne of oil which in turn gives back 182.1 GJ of energy per hectare per year through its products.  (Note: GJ = Giga joules). This gives oil palm a very favorable input-output energy ratio of 9.5 as compared to 2.5 for soybean and 3.0 for oilseed ripe.
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