Biofuels and biodiversity don't mix, ecologists warn

July 9, 2008

Rising demand for palm oil will decimate biodiversity unless producers and politicians can work together to preserve as much remaining natural forest as possible, ecologists have warned. A new study of the potential ecological impact of various management strategies published in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology found that very little can be done to make palm oil plantations more hospitable for local birds and butterflies. The findings have major implications for the booming market in biofuels and its impact on biodiversity.

Dr Lian Pin Koh of ETH Zürich looked at the number of birds and butterflies in 15 palm oil plantations in East Sabah, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. He found that palm oil plantations supported between one and 13 butterfly species, and between seven and 14 species of bird. Previous research by other ecologists found at least 85 butterfly and 103 bird species in neighbouring undisturbed rain forest.

Management techniques – such as encouraging epiphytes, beneficial plants or weed cover in palm oil plantations – increased species richness by only 0.4 species for butterflies and 2.2 species for birds. Preserving remaining natural forests – for example by creating forest buffer zones between plantations – made a little more impact, increasing species richness by 3.7 in the case of butterflies and 2.5 for birds.

According to Dr Koh: "Rapid expansion of oil palm agriculture onto forested lands, even logged forests, poses a significant threat to biodiversity. This study shows that to maximise biodiversity in oil palm plantations, the industry and local governments should work together to preserve as much of the remaining natural forest as possible, for example by creating forest buffer zones around oil palm estates or protecting remaining patches of forest. Even then, the industry's impact on biodiversity is enormous."

The study is particularly important because it comes at time when rising demand for both food and biofuels is putting mounting pressure on biodiversity. "The rapid expansion of oil palm agriculture in Southeast Asia raises serious concerns about its potential impact on the region's biodiversity. Unless future expansion of oil palm agriculture is regulated, rising global demand is likely to exacerbate the high rates of forest conversion in major oil palm-producing countries," says Dr Koh.

Palm oil plantations currently cover around 13 million hectares worldwide, producing 40 million tons a year. Malaysia and Indonesia account for around 56% of this cultivated area and 80% of production. Between 1960 and 2000, global palm oil production increased 10-fold (from 2 million tons in 1960 to 24 million tons in 2000). As well as biofuel, palm oil is used in food additives, cosmetics and industrial lubricants.

Source: Wiley

Explore further: Malaysia announces sweeping new protections for orangutans

Related Stories

Malaysia announces sweeping new protections for orangutans

August 20, 2015

The Chief Minister of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, Tan Sri Haji Adenan Bin Satem, issued a video statement which highlights his intention protect orangutans and other fauna and flora located in this biodiverse-rich region ...

Transforming farm residues into biofuels and more

August 14, 2015

To cut the cost of biofuels, their production-process can be enhanced to include additional valuable biochemical compounds. A recent experimental study focuses on one source of biomass: residues from Brazilian palm oil production.

SE Asia sees little progress on haze as fires rage

July 28, 2015

Southeast Asian nations meeting Tuesday to discuss the problem of haze that shrouds the region's skies every year made little progress, as the number of smog-belching forest fires was on the rise in Indonesia.

Recommended for you

Earth's mineralogy unique in the cosmos

August 26, 2015

New research from a team led by Carnegie's Robert Hazen predicts that Earth has more than 1,500 undiscovered minerals and that the exact mineral diversity of our planet is unique and could not be duplicated anywhere in the ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.