The sustainability of palm oil is often questioned – more often than for any other crop. Palm oil is accused of being a leading cause of deforestation — and therefore a driver of wildlife loss and climate change. It is also accused of causing any number of social ills. The focus on palm oil is hugely disproportionate: no other crop receives as much scrutiny from NGOs, politicians or the media. The same level of scrutiny is not applied to other commodities such as beef, soy, rapeseed, sunflower or corn.
Before we look at the question of the sustainability of oil palm cultivation, the footprint of the crop needs to be put into perspective.
Global Area (Mha)
Pasture / fodder crops
Source: FAO-OECD Agricultural Outlook 2019
Across the globe, around 4,900 Mha of land is used for agriculture. Oil palm represents around 0.3% of the total agricultural area of the world. Compared to other crops, it is both a very recent and a very small contributor to the global use of land for agricultural purposes.
The largest concern of palm oil critics is that oil palm cultivation has contributed significantly to global deforestation in recent times. Again, to gain perspective, a comparison with other agricultural commodities is needed.
Annual deforestation (Ha)
Share of deforestation (%) (1990-2008)
Source: UCSA, European Commission
Compared with other commodities, the deforestation footprint of oil palm is small: Ten times smaller than beef, and around half that of soy.
There is, therefore, a hugely disproportionate focus on palm oil – both in its existing footprint and its rate of change. The debate on deforestation does not match up with the reality on the ground – if it did, then far more time would be spent discussing other commodities instead of continued focus only on palm oil.
There is also a lack of credit given to oil palm cultivation in terms of its existing sustainability assurances. Currently, RSPO is the major international scheme for palm oil. It covers around 4 million ha of cultivated area (21%) and around 19% of global production. RSPO certification does not cover certification under Indonesia Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) and Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO). The certification footprint of palm oil can be compared with other certification schemes below.
Global certified area (ha)
Share of global area (%)
Certified production (Mt)
Share of global production (%)
Source: RSPO, RTRS, GRSB, MSPO, ISPO
This is not the full story, however. There are further commitments that have been made by the Indonesian and Malaysian governments in terms of both environmental management and certification.
Indonesia’s forest moratorium was first introduced in 2011 under President Yudhoyono. The moratorium was extended three times, and finally made permanent in 2019. The original moratorium banned clearing of forest for oil palm and plantation forestry in primary forest and peatland areas. This covered an area of approximately 66 million ha – slightly under two-thirds of Indonesia’s total forest area.
There is enough evidence to indicate that the moratorium has made an impact. Since 2014, the rate of forest cover loss has slowed. The drop has been large enough for it to trigger an avoided deforestation payment from Norway to the Government of Indonesia, from a deal that was signed in 2010 between the two countries. There have been some exceptions to this, notably in 2016. The high levels of tree cover loss in this year was because of fires that occurred in the previous calendar year, and were recorded in the statistics in 2016.
In March of this year, Malaysia’s Minister for Primary Industries Teresa Kok announced that the Federal Government would push to cap the total oil palm area for Malaysia at 6 million ha from the current total of 5.85 million ha. Although the proposal requires the support of state administrations across Malaysia, it is a clear indication that the government is seeking to place further curbs on any forest loss.
These are further proactive measures taken by producing countries to curb any impact on deforestation and climate. But, again, context is essential. Forest loss is not actually a major concern in Malaysia compared with other countries, such as Brazil or Congo Basin countries.
Malaysia’s forest area has largely been flat for several years, according to UN FAO data. Its tree cover loss – which can be the result of selective logging in natural forests, disease, or harvesting within plantations – has been relatively small. The country’s total forest area is around 22,200,000ha. Estimates put tree cover loss in natural forest areas at around 233,000ha for 2018.