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What’s Worse Than Palm Oil for the Environment? Other Vegetable Oils, IUCN Study Finds

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What’s Worse Than Palm Oil for the Environment? Other Vegetable Oils, IUCN Study Finds
A Bornean orangutan in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo. An endangered species, the ape is threatened by the unbridled expansion of oil palm plantations into their forest homes. Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

By Hans Nicholas Jong

Banning palm oil in favor of other vegetable oils deemed less destructive to the environment could lead to greater biodiversity losses, a new report says.

The report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) comes amid mounting debate about the use of palm oil, with the European Union seeking to phase out the use of the ubiquitous commodity in biofuels by 2030, citing environmental and human rights violations in the production of the commodity.


But existing vegetable oils that could theoretically replace palm oil would be far more damaging to the environment because they would need more land, according to the IUCN report "Palm Oil and Biodiversity."

The production of palm oil is characterized by its high yield relative to other vegetable oils, meaning more of it can be produced from a given area of farmland than other oil crops. The latter require up to nine times more land than oil palms to produce the same amount of oil.

Palm oil is currently produced from just 10 percent of all farmland dedicated to growing oil crops, yet accounts for 35 percent of the global volume of all vegetable oils.

"Half of the world's population uses palm oil in food, and if we ban or boycott it, other, more land-hungry oils will likely take its place," IUCN director general Inger Andersen said in a press release.

Indonesia and Malaysia are the world's biggest producers of palm oil, accounting for a combined 90 percent of global supply. However, the expansion of oil palm estates, particularly in Indonesia, has long been criticized for driving deforestation across much of the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, as well as stoking social conflicts over land and other resources with forest and indigenous communities.

Feeding global demand for vegetable oils with other crops would only shift the damage elsewhere, to ecosystems such as the tropical forests and savannas of South America, the IUCN report said. One such oil crop widely cultivated in South America is soy, which has already had a massive negative impact on biodiversity in the region. Studies have linked the cultivation of soy to lower bird diversity in Brazil and Argentina. Much of Brazil's soy production takes place in the Cerrado, a vast tropical savanna that's home to rare and threatened species found nowhere else.

A recent report by the global environmental campaign NGO Mighty Earth found that 30,000 acres of forest, or about 12,100 hectares, were being cleared to plant new soy fields in northern Argentina, which supply some of the companies producing soy-based biodiesel for export to the U.S.

"When we look at soybean use of production there, we [sent] a team to Argentina, and we found tremendous damage to the forest," Henry Waxman, chairman of Mighty Earth, said at a panel discussion at the Oslo Tropical Forest Forum in Norway on June 28.

The IUCN report emphasized that even though palm oil was the most efficient oil crop, it needed to be deforestation-free to halt the destruction of biodiversity in Southeast Asia and other regions where it's produced. The current practice of producing palm oil remains highly destructive, leading to the decimation of tropical rainforests and the species that depend on them, the report said. Orangutans, gibbons and tigers are among the 193 threatened species on the IUCN's Red List that would be affected by the continued expansion of oil palm plantations into forest areas—a menagerie of biodiversity representing half of the world's threatened mammals and almost two-thirds of threatened birds.

"Palm oil is decimating South East Asia's rich diversity of species as it eats into swathes of tropical forest," said Erik Meijaard, the report's lead author and chair of IUCN's oil palm task force. "But if it is replaced by much larger areas of rapeseed, soy or sunflower fields, different natural ecosystems and species may suffer."

Rainforest cleared for an oil palm estate in Indonesian BorneoSandy Watt for The Gecko Project

What's Next?

The report found that by far the biggest gains for biodiversity in an oil palm context are through avoiding further deforestation, which can be achieved through improved planning of new plantations and better management of forest patches left untouched in plantations.

The report also recommended stakeholders push for greater demand for sustainably produced palm oil, thereby putting pressure on producers to improve their practices.

"With most palm oil being supplied to India, China, and Indonesia, consumer awareness in these countries needs to be raised to ensure that this demand will materialize," the report read.

Adrian Suharto, the head of stakeholder engagement at Finland-based biodiesel supplier Neste Corporation, agreed with the report's recommendations.

"The most important thing is that what you buy is sustainable and you educate people and help support the local government in Indonesia and Malaysia, Thailand, Colombia, and everywhere else to understand the importance of having sustainable production [of palm oil]," he said at the Oslo Tropical Forest Forum.

The European Federation for Transport and Environment, an umbrella for NGOs working in the field of transport and the environment, said the best solution would be to completely remove biofuel mandates and incentives for crop-based biofuels that force people to use biofuel. It cited as a case in point the EU's 2009 policy requiring every EU member state to have 10 percent renewable fuels by 2020.

The EU is now revising its renewable energy policy, which will remove the incentives for crop-based fuels starting from 2020. It will also phase out the use of palm oil in biodiesel, which Laura Buffet, the manager for clean fuels at the transport and environment federation, said was a move in the right direction.

"I agree that if you keep the same drivers and the same high target, and you just remove one feedstock from the equation, it'll be likely to be filled by something else," she said at the Oslo forum. If those alternatives are soy or rapeseed oil, she added, "you will also look at indirect impact and deforestation, so it's not going to solve entirely the issue."

"That's why we're asking for reducing or completely removing the mandate, and that's going to be the best solution."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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