Website explores the effects of palm oil

The Institute on the Environment joins a project that tracks world forests.

by Eliana Schreiber

From shampoo to Girl Scout cookies, palm oil is an ingredient widely used in U.S. products. Now, University of Minnesota experts are exploring its possible negative environmental impacts.
The World Resources Institute and the University’s Institute on the Environment will soon share data on palm oil yield and its contribution to deforestation with an interactive website.
The project, Global Forest Watch, gathers satellite information and tracks forests as they are cleared, said IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative co-director Paul West. 
In Southeast Asia, much of the forest loss can be attributed to palm oil growth. Demand for palm oil has increased, but cultivating palm requires farmers to clear significant portions of tropical forests, West said.
This leads to habitat fragmentation, which cuts down on areas where animals can live, said fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology sophomore Libby McGraw.
Many people aren’t aware of the effects of palm oil and its use in everyday products, she said, as the oil can be disguised with alternative names.
GFW identifies the companies that own plots of land in tropical regions and tracks their responsibility for tree loss there.
“It’s designed as a tool to help a number of companies make good on a commitment they have made,” West said.
The website itself has received national attention, including a mention at last year’s Paris climate talks, he said. 
Tropical forest loss accounts for 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions every year, West said, a huge portion of the total emissions.
The boost in land usage for palm oil over the last decade has blindsided ecologists, said ecology, evolution and behavior and plant biology professor Jennifer Powers.
Palm oil creation is so widespread that scientists don’t have enough research to understand its full effect on climate change yet, she said.
Land that gets cleared for palm oil, specifically in Indonesia, is made up of peats, which store large amounts of carbon in the soil. When farmers clear them to grow palm, they emit greenhouse gases, Powers said.
Palm oil can impede the environment on a number of fronts, including biodiversity, habitat fragmentation, tree growth and carbon cycling, she said.
“Science is … quantifying exactly how much carbon are you releasing [and] what are the effects on biodiversity,” she said. “These are really, really important topics at the forefront of this research that’s going on right now.”