Image taken from the paper Meijaard et al. 2020
A new paper has modelled the impact to species for different oils. Coconut oil threatens 5 times more species than other types of oil, challenging our views and actions on environmental living.
Palm oil has become a poster child for boycotting and passionate environmentalism. But it's really not that straightforward. Oil palm is very high yielding over a number of years- so in theory has a low rate deforestation each year. Historically families would grow and utilise a tree in their garden in the tropics. However, the global demand for palm oil has increased rapidly has lead to an explosion of new oil palm plantations and environmental degredation on tracts of highly biodiverse rainforest- often peat- a very efficient carbon store . Oil palm also only grows in the tropics, unfortunately- where most of the worlds biodiversity lies. Sustainably produced palm oil is also controversial, with the scheme facing many problems.
When we move to Olive oil, is scene is better but still bleak. Last year we reported on the harvesting systems for olive oil that was far removed from the beautiful adverts of shaking branches onto blankets... In reality huge mechanic suckers are used on the trees- a very efficient system for the olive producers but that also hoovers up birds, nests and all insects. This may account for the ranking higher than oil palm. Huge scale monocrops of olive are also not necessarily natural, no matter how long they've been established.
Rapeseed oil scores lowest, interesting for UK residents of whom rapeseed oil is both easy to get and relatively cheap, even organically. Of course, rapeseed oil still represents huge monocrops that are far from ideal either. Rapeseed oil is a suitable alternative for "plastic free switches" such as home-made deodorant or face creams.
But why is coconut oil so threatening to species? Islands tend to be highly rich in endemic species (species only found there). This occurs due to the theory of "Island Biogeography". Being separated from the mainland species, allows new species to evolve in new niches. Coconuts also naturally thrive on islands and historically their use for island communities have been enormous. From jewellery to milk, oil, meat, utensils and more. Coconut water can even be used as a last resort for blood plasma. Tiny island communities used their naturally growing coconuts for subsinence, but as the boom of coconut oil- which is used in lots of products and has been a huge part of the plastic free (homemade products) and the vegan movement, as well as health movement (coconut water and oil) increased, so has it's trade and growth. Growing and harvesting coconuts on delicate island ecosystems is causing a larger impact because of the endemic species it risks.
"Progress towards both the environmental and socio-economic objectives of sustainable development requires overcoming shortsightedness and double standards, and finding a much better understanding of the negative and positive impacts of all expanding crops. "- Meijaard et al. 2020
Questions I Ask:
When reading new papers and new information it's really important to ask more questions. Mine in this case include but not limited to-
What would be the result when not only mapped for threat to species, but water use, yields etc (life cycle analysis tend to include this, should LCA therefore include species risk?)
How would all this data change depending on where you live? I.E. Does the carbon savings of one crop get wiped with shipping around the world? Whats the best oil dependant on where you live?
Has all the uses of coconut been modelled into these workings? I.E. Coconut oil production not only yields oil but husk and shell. Does this reduce risk?
Which is most likely to be traded ethically?
The paper is incomplete for invertebrates and plants, an important aspect of the research.
So yes, it's complex. And yet again we see why knee jerk reactions doesn't yield the most holistic and constructive actions long term. We must even look beyond this paper, look deeper into the bigger picture of consuming.
What should we take from this (and what we knew before based on scientific research...)
Oil production can have a heavy environmental impacts. Reducing our use of oils across the board could reduce these impacts. This includes in hidden products like cleaning products and processed foods.
If you do buy palm oil, buy sustainability produced, as this invests in better systems.
Embrace local oils. Rapeseed is a good choice for the UK especially when organic.
Don't knee jerk react to new knowledge, but be ready to adapt to new learning and be open. Constantly question what you currently know & believe.
This year I am making the switch to more rapeseed oil use in my beauty products, as it stays liquid throughout the chilly British winter. Sticking with rapeseed oil for my own use in the UK means an excellent oil that doesn't solidify but also local organic, cost effective and if we use this- less species risk.
To quote the paper- "While perfection may be unattainable, improvements over current practices are not."Meijaard et al. 2020.
Find the paper here: https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/du5tp/