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Recent Studies Further Confirm that Oil Palm Cultivation is not the Main Cause of Deforestation

Need of new land to feed the growing population

Some things go hand in hand. One of them is that a growing world population needs more food which requires more land to produce. The reality is that the world population keeps on growing and growing. With a world population of 7.4 billion in 2016, this will grow to 9.9 billion in 20501, which is a sizeable increase of 33%. Undoubtedly, more food needs to be produced.

Land is required for the production of many different food. These include cereals, oil crops and livestock. While producing more food to meet a rising world population was the result of clearing more land or land extensification in the past, the scenario has somewhat changed today.  Advances in science has led to increasing food production through land intensification with higher crop and livestock yielding varieties and better farming methods. The reality is that the use of land intensification techniques alone cannot meet the food supply needed to feed the spiraling world population.

What happens then? Sufficient food supply must be met to an extent through land extensification. This  means that more new land, likely to be forest land,  must be cleared for agriculture. The clearing of forested land, when it is not planted back with a forest tree species, is termed deforestation.

In order to feed the  growing world population, deforestation takes place for raising livestock and to grow crops. Time and again, oil palm has been accused of being the biggest driver of deforestation, but in reality, this is not the case as the following shows.

Livestock is the leading cause of deforestation

In 2006,  a study conducted by FAO2 pinpointed that the livestock industry was the main cause of deforestation. Subsequently, a comparative study3  carried out for two vital industries that provide food to the world, namely the livestock and palm oil industries, also showed that the livestock industry required extensive land for production. In 2012, the study showed that there were 15.6 million hectares (ha) of land planted with oil palm, compared to 4,673 million ha used for livestock production  as shown in Figure 1. Thus, the area used for livestock production was nearly 300 times larger than that planted with oil palm.

Figure 1: Land areas used for livestock and palm oil production in 20123

More recent  reports, such as that of the Union of Concerned Scientists 4,5 also showed that beef production, which is the leading form of livestock production, caused the most forest loss, followed by soya cultivation in terms of land expansion. The results  in Table 1 show that annual forest loss in 2001-2010 for beef production was 14 times larger than that for new oil palm planting. In fact, in this study, the planting of oil palm caused the least amount of forest loss. In comparison,  planting new soya fields caused 1.8 times more forest loss while the wood industry caused 1.4 times more forest loss when compared to planting oil palm.

Table 1: Forest loss due to the following activities

Agriculture activity Amount of forest loss in 2001-2010(ha/year)




Wood products


Oil palm


Sources: Union of Concerned Scientists 4,5

Land expansion to grow major oil crops

According to statistics obtained from Oil World 6,7 , among the four major crops that supply the bulk of oils and fats globally, during the period between 2010 and 2015, land expansion to grow soya was the largest as shown in Table 2.  The area planted with soya grew by 17.3 million ha. In 2010 there were 102.8 million ha  (m ha) of soya while in 2015 the planted area was 120.1 m ha.

Four times more land was cleared to plant soya than oil palm during this period. Oil palm expansion occurred in 4.4 m ha, followed by rapeseed 3.8 m ha and sunflower 0.5m ha.

Table 2: Land area planted with major oil crops in the world between 2010 and 2015

Crop Area in 2010
(m ha)3
Area in 2015
(m ha)4
Growth in area during the period
(m ha)
Oil palm
















Sources: Oil World Annual 20106 ,  Oil World Annual 20157

Current scenario for vegetable oil crops

In 2016, soya continued to be planted on the biggest land area, with 120.2 million hectares as seen in Table 3. This land area formed 61% of the total of 196,470 hectares planted with oil palm, rapeseed, soya and sunflower. Rapeseed was second and was planted on 17% of the total area followed by sunflower with 13%. Oil palm was  was planted  on the lowest amount of land, at only  9% of the total land area.

In spite of oil palm grown on the least amount of land and, hence, causing the least amount of deforestation, this crop provided the most amount of oils and fats, with 39% of the total oil produced by these four crops. Although soya was planted on the largest area or  61% of the total  area, it could only produce 34% of the total amount of oil among these four crops.

Table 3. Harvested area and yield obtained from the four major oil crops in 2016

Crop Harvested area (x 1,000 ha) Total yield (x 1,000 MT)
Oil palm















Source: Oil World Annual 20168

Amount of deforestation is worse without oil palm

Oil palm is a high yielding oil crop. For the same land area, on an annual basis, it can produce 4.0 t/ha of oil versus 0.75 t/ha for rapeseed, 0.63 t/ha for sunflower and 0.39 t/ha for soya9. If there is a moratorium placed on oil palm expansion, the impact of forest loss can be devastating.  A study10  showed that even a short term  moratorium on oil palm expansion from 2013-2023, if imposed, could have drastic effects on forest loss. The study estimated that  an extra 8.8 m ha of oil palm, 29.2 m ha of soya. 17.7 m ha of rape and 3.3 m ha of sunflower will need to be planted by 2023 to meet the demands of these four oils as seen in Table 4.  However, if a moratorium on oil palm is enforced and the oil palm area remains static, the rising demand of oils will have to be met by the growing of more soya, rapeseed and sunflower. If soya alone makes up for the lack of new oil palm area, 97 m ha of new land area will be needed. Similarly, if rapeseed fills the gap, 58 m ha  of new land area will be needed. Sunflower will need 49 m ha. Thus, a moratorium on oil palm expansion will cause additional forest areas to be lost, ranging from 40 to 68 m ha,  instead of 8.8 m ha if there is no moratorium.

Table 4. Impact on forest loss due to moratorium on oil palm expansion from 2013- 2023

Crop Increase in new crop  area in 2023 without moratorium on oil palm (m ha) Increase in new crop area in 2023 with moratorium on oil palm  (m ha) Extra new land area needed due to moratorium
(m ha)
Oil palm













Source: James Fry 10


As world population increases, the need to produce more food also increases in tandem. This increase in food production  can be met, partly, through  intensive use of  existing land area. The other part has to be met by clearing new land, some of which are forested, for agriculture.

Studies have shown that  oil palm cultivation is not the main cause of deforestation. Even when oil palm is compared with the other major vegetable oil crops, namely rapeseed, soya and sunflower, it is grown on  the least amount of land area globally. This has been confirmed lately by other studies, such as the study of the Union of Concerned Scientists which showed that between 2001-2010, the biggest amount of forest loss was caused by the beef production. Oil palm caused the lowest amount of forest loss, superseded by soya, wood production and, of course, beef production. Limiting oil palm expansion is not the way to go to curb forest loss. The study shows that it could be counter-productive as it actually causes more forest loss.


  2. FAO (2006). Livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options, pp390.
  3. Yusof Basiron and Yew F.K.(2012). Land use effects of the livestock and oil palm industries , Journal of Oil Palm, Environment & Health 2015, 6:1-9.
  4. Union of Concerned Scientists  (www.ucsusa.ogr/global-warming/stop-deforestation)
  5. we-got-our-priorities backwards
  6. Oil World  Annual 2010. ISTA Mielke GmbH.
  7. Oil World  Annual 2015. ISTA Mielke GmbH.
  8. Oil World  Annual 2016. ISTA Mielke GmbH.
  9. Malaysian Palm Oil Council.  Malaysian Palm Oil Enriching Lives.
  10. James Fry (2016). What are the implications of a halt to all expansion in oil palm areas? PAC Seminar, Malaysian Palm Oil Board.

Article credit: Yew Foong Kheong, Ruslan Abdullah and Lim Teck Chaii

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