Is macauba a rainforest-friendly alternative to palm oil?

By Donna Eastlake

- Last updated on GMT

Is macauba a rainforest-friendly alternative to palm oil? GettyImages/MEDITERRANEAN
Is macauba a rainforest-friendly alternative to palm oil? GettyImages/MEDITERRANEAN

Related tags Palm oil Sustainability Agriculture Oil rainforest deforestation

Palm oil is cheap to produce in large quantities but unsustainable production methods, notably deforestation, means the bad can far outweigh the good. As a result, brands are increasingly distancing themselves from the use of irresponsible palm oil in their products. But is new kid on the block, macauba, the answer environmentalists and eco-friendly manufacturers have been looking for?

The destruction of the rainforests is widely recognised as one of the single biggest threats to human civilsation, with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) declaring, “there's simply no way we can fight the climate crisis if we don't stop deforestation.” One of the biggest, although certainly not the only, reasons for the decimation of these precious forests, has been to allow for the planting of oil palms for the production of palm oil. In response to this, many of the world’s governments, environmentalists, and eco-minded manufactures have been searching for a rainforest-friendly alternative to palm oil, in an effort to stem the tide of devastation, and they may have discovered a viable alternative, macauba oil.

"there's simply no way we can fight the climate crisis if we don't stop deforestation"

What is macauba oil and why is it a rainforest-saving option?

Macauba is a species of oil palm native to Brazil. As with other vegetable oils, it can be used as an ingredient in cooking and in the production of products such as packaging.

With a yield of approximately 2.5 metric tons of vegetable oil per hectare per year, the macauba plant is comparable to that of conventional oil palms in its productivity, but it requires less water and is more resistant to drought. This means macauba palms can be cultivated for oil production in less fertile soils and on degraded pastureland in the drier regions of Brazil, eliminating the need to clear rainforest for its production.

Growing these palms as crops also unlocks potential, with regards to sustainability and biodiversity. For example, when incorporated into integrated agroforestry systems, macauba can make an important ecological contribution to the soil. The root systems loosen degraded soils, help to prevent erosion, store water over long periods of time and create habitats for many small animals, insects and organisms, which live underground or in the soil. Farming these palms also helps to store carbon as their roots and trunks capture and store about 20 metric tons of carbon dioxide per hectare per year.

In short, there is huge potential available for macauba-crop growth, as a spokesperson for Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV explained, “there are more than 150 million hectares of pastureland available for macauba farming in Brazil alone. The Brazilian government has identified the use of macauba as a strategically important topic, so there is widespread support for planting and cultivating this species.”

The Fraunhofer IVV branch lab in Campinas, Brazil, is currently working to use the full fruit of the macauba palm tree, making it even more environmentally positive. Scientists at the lab have developed a new extraction method, making it possible to use not only the oil from the macauba fruits, but also the secondary products for processing. Fraunhofer IVV developed this method up to the pilot scale and have applied for a patent for it, in efforts to advance the sustainable, rainforest-friendly production of vegetable oil.

Rainforest - GettyImages-Oleh_Slobodeniuk
Is macauba a rainforest-friendly alternative to palm oil? GettyImages/Oleh_Slobodeniuk

What is palm oil and why is its production so damaging to the world’s rainforests?

Grown in the tropics, palm oil is a vegetable oil derived from the fruit of the oil palms. It can and is used as an ingredient in cooking, though it’s predominantly used in the production of packaging, detergents, cosmetics and biofuel. In fact, it’s used in the production of so many different products that it’s often referred to as the invisible ingredient, appearing in products you might not even expect.

Oil palms are an extremely productive crop, producing high yields at a relatively low cost, in comparison to other vegetable oils. Palm oil is, in isolation, a sustainable product. Oil palm trees produce up to ten times more oil per hectare than any other crop, meaning that, not only does it use less farmland than the production of other vegetable oils, but it also requires less water too.

So why are environmentalists campaigning against the use of palm oil? Well, the problem with the production of palm oil lies in the fact that rainforests across the globe are being destroyed to make way for oil palms. Plantations are spreading across Asia, Africa and Latin America where tropical forests, which formed critical habitats for endangered species such as rhinos, elephants and tigers, and where vital oxygen was produced, have been obliterated to make way for oil palm planting.

Rainforests are often referred to as the ‘lungs of the earth’ as they draw in carbon dioxide and release oxygen through photosynthesis. In addition to this, trees actually absorb and store carbon dioxide, meaning that if forests are cleared, or even disturbed, they release that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases back into the atmosphere. It’s no exaggeration to say that these forests are vital for human existence.

In particular, Indonesia and Malaysia, where 85% of the world’s oil palm is grown, have seen devastating deforestation as well as the intense draining of peat lands to make way for oil palm planting. Furthermore, half of the world’s rainforests have been lost to deforestation in the last century, with logging, agriculture, cattle grazing and oil production, cited as the primary reasons. It’s therefore essential that we find an alternative to palm oil, in an effort to halt the destruction of the world’s rainforests, particularly as the global population continues to rise, resulting in the inevitable rise in the global demand for oil.

Related topics Ingredients

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