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Eco washout

Science | Though lucrative and useful, palm oil has lost its environmental charm

Issue: "Praying for rain," Aug. 11, 2012

Palm oil is orange, edible, and ubiquitous. Squeezed from the fruit of oil palm trees, it's used in products like cookies, margarine, lipstick, potato chips, and instant noodles. Environmentalists have also promoted it as a biofuel, a renewable, environmentally friendly alternative to petroleum-based diesel. Palm oil's multipurpose nature has made it big business: On the stock exchanges, the world's second-largest initial public offering this year, behind Facebook, came from Felda Global Ventures, a state-run palm oil company from Malaysia.

The oil has lost its appeal to environmentalists, though. Nature reports Malaysia has nearly run out of land suitable for oil palm plantations, and in Indonesia, the world's top producer of the oil (44 million tons a year), plantation workers have deforested thousands of acres. One study found that once the cutting and burning of vegetation is factored in, it may take up to 220 years for a new plantation to repay its "carbon debt," the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by converting the land.

Much of the cutting and clearing in Indonesia is illegal: In July the Environmental Investigation Agency, a London-based organization, reported that a palm oil company had cut down 38,000 acres of forest on Indonesia's island of Borneo between 2004 and 2011, according to satellite images, without obtaining the proper environmental permits from Indonesian officials. (The company denied wrongdoing and said national and local permitting laws are contradictory.) Any penalty seemed unlikely to be harsh: Indonesia earns $20 billion a year on palm oil exports and wants to double production by 2030.

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Profitable and tasty as palm oil may be, it's a biofuel washout. The European Union still promotes palm oil as a biofuel, but in January the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made a preliminary recommendation against burning it for fuel after finding it emits, at most, only 17 percent less greenhouse gas than convention diesel. Agency officials have yet to announce a final verdict on the matter.

By the Numbers

Photo by NASA/Rex Features/Associated Press

15 miles: Estimated maximum diameter of a new moon, dubbed "P5," the Hubble Space Telescope discovered orbiting Pluto. It's the dwarf planet's fifth moon. Hubble spotted two others, Nix and Hydra, in 2005-and 
a fourth, P4, last year.

25 million acres: Chunk of land Australia has declared a conservation zone, the nation's largest so far and roughly equal in size to Portugal. The government will pay Aboriginal rangers to help manage the reserve, which spans subtropical savannah and sand, including much of the Tanami Desert. The zone harbors such threatened species as the bilby, a burrowing marsupial, and the great desert skink, a foot-long lizard.

1 in 12: Number of HIV-positive people who will get a false negative reading from OraQuick Advance, the first entirely in-home HIV test to receive Food and Drug Administration approval. The accuracy rate falls below usual FDA standards, but the agency greenlighted the test in hopes it will reach thousands of Americans who are unaware they have the AIDS virus. The test uses a mouth swab and should be available in drugstores by October.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is managing editor of WORLD Magazine and lives in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.


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