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Use of Palm Oil, Soybean Production Can Harm Environment

16 April 2013

Aarhus University

There is continued pressure on turning natural areas, including rainforests in South America and Southeast Asia, into areas for palm oil and soybean production. This production is not just bad news for the rainforests; it can also be hazardous to the environment and to the health of the local population.

Denmark also depends heavily on this production. We import large quantities of soybean and palm oil products that have been produced under conditions that would not have been acceptable in the EU.

On this background, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries requested that DCA – Danish Centre for Food and Agriculture carry out a review of the general impact on nature and the environment of the productions and their most important certification schemes.

This has resulted in the report ” Soja og palmeolie. Certificeringsordninger til dokumentation af bæredygtighed i forbindelse med produktion” (in Danish).

There are a number of documented negative environmental and health effects associated with the increasing production of soybean and palm oil in, respectively, South America and Southeast Asia, from where Denmark imports significant quantities. These effects are primarily connected to the use of pesticides and the conversion of forested and other natural areas into these productions, the report reveals.

The good news is that there are a number of certification schemes designed to ensure a more responsible use of pesticides. The schemes do not, however, guard against the use of genetically modified crops.

Risks Associated with the Growing of Soybean and Oil Palm Trees

In the report the scientists from Aarhus University describe the production of soybean and palm oil separately.

Soybean is one of the most important animal feed ingredients in the world. With the rising global consumption of meat, the demand for soya for animal feed is likewise rising. In Denmark, the use of soybean in animal feed is a staggering 1.5 million tonnes per year, most of which is sourced from Argentina and Brazil. In terms of area, this corresponds to growing soybean on an area the size of Zealand.

The report describes how the growing of soybean in Argentina and Brazil uses large amounts of pesticides, including several that have been banned in the EU. Large tracts of land are moreover grown with genetically modified soybean.

The increasing production of soybean also encroaches onto natural areas and extensively cultivated areas and leads to larger emissions of nutrients into the environment. Biodiversity and natural habitats are also degraded and reduced.

Nature is not the only thing that is affected by intensive soybean production. The population in the rural areas is also affected. The extensive use of pesticides in some cases means that there is a direct harmful effect on the health of the population.

The production of palm oil also causes problems. The main environmental problem associated with palm oil production in Southeast Asia is the conversion of natural areas into palm oil plantations. It poses a critical threat to many endangered species as their habitats disappear.

There may also be environmental problems associated with the use of toxic substances in the productions, air pollution from the burning of forests, soil erosion and heavy sedimentation of rivers and streams, as well as the discharge of wastewater from palm oil mills.

Certification Schemes Help

Several schemes help to promote sustainable production; for example, organic certification and Fair Trade. Schemes associated with the production of, respectively, soybean and palm oil are, for example, the Round Table on Responsible Soy Association (RTRS) and Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The report gives a more detailed description of what the two schemes involve.

Generally, the scientists behind the report find that the RTRS and RSPO schemes follow the international guidelines for certification and that the production methods on which the certifications are based reduce the adverse environmental and health risks of soybean and palm oil production. The use of pesticides and GMOs is, however, accepted in these schemes, in contrast to the organic certification schemes.

April 2013

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