Environmental Impacts of Tropical Soybean and Palm Oil Crops
- Kimberly M. CarlsonKimberly M. CarlsonDepartment of Natural Resources and Environmental Management, University of Hawai’I
- and Rachael D. GarrettRachael D. GarrettDepartment of Earth and Environment, Boston University
Oil crops play a critical role in global food and energy systems. Since these crops have high oil content, they provide cooking oils for human consumption, biofuels for energy, feed for animals, and ingredients in beauty products and industrial processes. In 2014, oil crops occupied about 20% of crop harvested area worldwide. While small-scale oil crop production for subsistence or local consumption continues in certain regions, global demand for these versatile crops has led to substantial expansion of oil crop agriculture destined for export or urban markets. This expansion and subsequent cultivation has diverse effects on the environment, including loss of forests, savannas, and grasslands, greenhouse gas emissions, regional climate change, biodiversity decline, fire, and altered water quality and hydrology. Oil palm in Southeast Asia and soybean in South America have been identified as major proximate causes of tropical deforestation and environmental degradation. Stringent conservation policies and yield increases are thought to be critical to reducing rates of soybean and oil palm expansion into natural ecosystems. However, the higher profits that often accompany greater yields may encourage further expansion, while policies that restrict oil crop expansion in one region may generate secondary “spillover” effects on other crops and regions. Due to these complex feedbacks, ensuring a sustainable supply of oil crop products to meet global demand remains a major challenge for agricultural companies, farmers, governments, and civil society.