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Concept: Oil palm


Palm oil is the most widely traded vegetable oil globally, with demand projected to increase substantially in the future. Almost all oil palm grows in areas that were once tropical moist forests, some of them quite recently. The conversion to date, and future expansion, threatens biodiversity and increases greenhouse gas emissions. Today, consumer pressure is pushing companies toward deforestation-free sources of palm oil. To guide interventions aimed at reducing tropical deforestation due to oil palm, we analysed recent expansions and modelled likely future ones. We assessed sample areas to find where oil palm plantations have recently replaced forests in 20 countries, using a combination of high-resolution imagery from Google Earth and Landsat. We then compared these trends to countrywide trends in FAO data for oil palm planted area. Finally, we assessed which forests have high agricultural suitability for future oil palm development, which we refer to as vulnerable forests, and identified critical areas for biodiversity that oil palm expansion threatens. Our analysis reveals regional trends in deforestation associated with oil palm agriculture. In Southeast Asia, 45% of sampled oil palm plantations came from areas that were forests in 1989. For South America, the percentage was 31%. By contrast, in Mesoamerica and Africa, we observed only 2% and 7% of oil palm plantations coming from areas that were forest in 1989. The largest areas of vulnerable forest are in Africa and South America. Vulnerable forests in all four regions of production contain globally high concentrations of mammal and bird species at risk of extinction. However, priority areas for biodiversity conservation differ based on taxa and criteria used. Government regulation and voluntary market interventions can help incentivize the expansion of oil palm plantations in ways that protect biodiversity-rich ecosystems.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Biodiversity, Agriculture, Forest, Greenhouse gas, Palm oil, Oil palm, Deforestation


Many major corporations and countries have made commitments to purchase or produce only “sustainable” palm oil, a commodity responsible for substantial tropical forest loss. Sustainability certification is the tool most used to fulfill these procurement policies, and around 20% of global palm oil production was certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2017. However, the effect of certification on deforestation in oil palm plantations remains unclear. Here, we use a comprehensive dataset of RSPO-certified and noncertified oil palm plantations (∼188,000 km2) in Indonesia, the leading producer of palm oil, as well as annual remotely sensed metrics of tree cover loss and fire occurrence, to evaluate the impact of certification on deforestation and fire from 2001 to 2015. While forest loss and fire continued after RSPO certification, certified palm oil was associated with reduced deforestation. Certification lowered deforestation by 33% from a counterfactual of 9.8 to 6.6% y-1 Nevertheless, most plantations contained little residual forest when they received certification. As a result, by 2015, certified areas held less than 1% of forests remaining within Indonesian oil palm plantations. Moreover, certification had no causal impact on forest loss in peatlands or active fire detection rates. Broader adoption of certification in forested regions, strict requirements to avoid all peat, and routine monitoring of clearly defined forest cover loss in certified and RSPO member-held plantations appear necessary if the RSPO is to yield conservation and climate benefits from reductions in tropical deforestation.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Forestry, Forest, Rainforest, Tropical rainforest, Palm oil, Oil palm


Oil palm is the most productive oil-bearing crop. Although it is planted on only 5% of the total world vegetable oil acreage, palm oil accounts for 33% of vegetable oil and 45% of edible oil worldwide, but increased cultivation competes with dwindling rainforest reserves. We report the 1.8-gigabase (Gb) genome sequence of the African oil palm Elaeis guineensis, the predominant source of worldwide oil production. A total of 1.535 Gb of assembled sequence and transcriptome data from 30 tissue types were used to predict at least 34,802 genes, including oil biosynthesis genes and homologues of WRINKLED1 (WRI1), and other transcriptional regulators, which are highly expressed in the kernel. We also report the draft sequence of the South American oil palm Elaeis oleifera, which has the same number of chromosomes (2n = 32) and produces fertile interspecific hybrids with E. guineensis but seems to have diverged in the New World. Segmental duplications of chromosome arms define the palaeotetraploid origin of palm trees. The oil palm sequence enables the discovery of genes for important traits as well as somaclonal epigenetic alterations that restrict the use of clones in commercial plantings, and should therefore help to achieve sustainability for biofuels and edible oils, reducing the rainforest footprint of this tropical plantation crop.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Gene expression, RNA, Arecaceae, Palm oil, Elaeis guineensis, Oil palm


A key event in the domestication and breeding of the oil palm Elaeis guineensis was loss of the thick coconut-like shell surrounding the kernel. Modern E. guineensis has three fruit forms, dura (thick-shelled), pisifera (shell-less) and tenera (thin-shelled), a hybrid between dura and pisifera. The pisifera palm is usually female-sterile. The tenera palm yields far more oil than dura, and is the basis for commercial palm oil production in all of southeast Asia. Here we describe the mapping and identification of the SHELL gene responsible for the different fruit forms. Using homozygosity mapping by sequencing, we found two independent mutations in the DNA-binding domain of a homologue of the MADS-box gene SEEDSTICK (STK, also known as AGAMOUS-LIKE 11), which controls ovule identity and seed development in Arabidopsis. The SHELL gene is responsible for the tenera phenotype in both cultivated and wild palms from sub-Saharan Africa, and our findings provide a genetic explanation for the single gene hybrid vigour (or heterosis) attributed to SHELL, via heterodimerization. This gene mutation explains the single most important economic trait in oil palm, and has implications for the competing interests of global edible oil production, biofuels and rainforest conservation.

Concepts: Genetics, Evolution, Arecaceae, Malaysia, Palm oil, Elaeis guineensis, Oil palm, Palm kernel


Native species that forage in farmland may increase their local abundances thereby affecting adjacent ecosystems within their landscape. We used two decades of ecological data from a protected primary rainforest in Malaysia to illutrate how subsidies from neighboring oil palm plantations triggered powerful secondary ‘cascading’ effects on natural habitats located >1.3 km away. We found (i) oil palm fruit drove 100-fold increases in crop-raiding native wild boar (Sus scrofa), (ii) wild boar used thousands of understory plants to construct birthing nests in the pristine forest interior, and (iii) nest building caused a 62% decline in forest tree sapling density over the 24-year study period. The long-term, landscape-scale indirect effects from agriculture suggest its full ecological footprint may be larger in extent than is currently recognized. Cross-boundary subsidy cascades may be widespread in both terrestrial and marine ecosystems and present significant conservation challenges.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Forest, Tree, Wild boar, Domestic pig, Rainforest, Tropical rainforest, Oil palm


Fibres from oil palm empty fruit bunches, generated in large quantities by palm oil mills, were processed into self-adhesive carbon grains (SACG). Untreated and KOH-treated SACG were converted without binder into green monolith prior to N-carbonisation and CO-activation to produce highly porous binderless carbon monolith electrodes for supercapacitor applications. Characterisation of the pore structure of the electrodes revealed a significant advantage from combining the chemical and physical activation processes. The electrochemical measurements of the supercapacitor cells fabricated using these electrodes, using cyclic voltammetry, electrochemical impedance spectroscopy and galvanostatic charge-discharge techniques consistently found that approximately 3h of activation time, achieved via a multi-step heating profile, produced electrodes with a high surface area of 1704mg and a total pore volume of 0.889cmg, corresponding to high values for the specific capacitance, specific energy and specific power of 150Fg, 4.297Whkg and 173Wkg, respectively.

Concepts: Spectroscopy, Electrochemistry, Petroleum, Thermodynamics, Carbon, Activated carbon, Voltammetry, Oil palm


The production of palm oil (PO) is highly profitable. The economies of the principal producers, Malaysia and Indonesia, and others, benefit considerably. Climate change (CC) will most likely have an impact on the distribution of oil palms (OP) (Elaeis guineensis). Here we present modelled CC projections with respect to the suitability of growing OP, in Malaysia and Indonesia. A process-oriented niche model of OP was developed using CLIMEX to estimate its potential distribution under current and future climate scenarios. Two Global Climate Models (GCMs), CSIRO-Mk3.0 and MIROC-H, were used to explore the impacts of CC under the A1B and A2 scenarios for 2030, 2070 and 2100. Decreases in climatic suitability for OP in the region were gradual by 2030 but became more pronounced by 2100. These projections imply that OP growth will be affected severely by CC, with obvious implications to the economies of (a) Indonesia and Malaysia and (b) the PO industry, but with potential benefits towards reducing CC. A possible remedial action is to concentrate research on development of new varieties of OP that are less vulnerable to CC.

Concepts: Climate, Climate change, Arecaceae, Malaysia, Palm oil, Elaeis guineensis, Oil palm, Global climate model


Somaclonal variation arises in plants and animals when differentiated somatic cells are induced into a pluripotent state, but the resulting clones differ from each other and from their parents. In agriculture, somaclonal variation has hindered the micropropagation of elite hybrids and genetically modified crops, but the mechanism responsible remains unknown. The oil palm fruit ‘mantled’ abnormality is a somaclonal variant arising from tissue culture that drastically reduces yield, and has largely halted efforts to clone elite hybrids for oil production. Widely regarded as an epigenetic phenomenon, ‘mantling’ has defied explanation, but here we identify the MANTLED locus using epigenome-wide association studies of the African oil palm Elaeis guineensis. DNA hypomethylation of a LINE retrotransposon related to rice Karma, in the intron of the homeotic gene DEFICIENS, is common to all mantled clones and is associated with alternative splicing and premature termination. Dense methylation near the Karma splice site (termed the Good Karma epiallele) predicts normal fruit set, whereas hypomethylation (the Bad Karma epiallele) predicts homeotic transformation, parthenocarpy and marked loss of yield. Loss of Karma methylation and of small RNA in tissue culture contributes to the origin of mantled, while restoration in spontaneous revertants accounts for non-Mendelian inheritance. The ability to predict and cull mantling at the plantlet stage will facilitate the introduction of higher performing clones and optimize environmentally sensitive land resources.

Concepts: DNA, Genetics, Gene expression, RNA, Arecaceae, Palm oil, Elaeis guineensis, Oil palm


Expansion of oil palm plantations has led to extensive wildlife habitat conversion in Southeast Asia [1]. This expansion is driven by a global demand for palm oil for products ranging from foods to detergents [2], and more recently for biofuels [3]. The negative impacts of oil palm development on biodiversity [1, 4, 5], and on orangutans (Pongo spp.) in particular, have been well documented [6, 7] and publicized [8, 9]. Although the oil palm is of African origin, Africa’s production historically lags behind that of Southeast Asia. Recently, significant investments have been made that will likely drive the expansion of Africa’s oil palm industry [10]. There is concern that this will lead to biodiversity losses similar to those in Southeast Asia. Here, we analyze the potential impact of oil palm development on Africa’s great apes. Current great ape distribution in Africa substantially overlaps with current oil palm concessions (by 58.7%) and areas suitable for oil palm production (by 42.3%). More importantly, 39.9% of the distribution of great ape species on unprotected lands overlaps with suitable oil palm areas. There is an urgent need to develop guidelines for the expansion of oil palm in Africa to minimize the negative effects on apes and other wildlife. There is also a need for research to support land use decisions to reconcile economic development, great ape conservation, and avoiding carbon emissions.

Concepts: Human, Hominidae, Chimpanzee, Gorilla, Ape, Oil palm, Orangutan, Catarrhini


Oil palm plantations have expanded rapidly in recent decades. This large-scale land-use change has had great ecological, economic, and social impacts on both the areas converted to oil palm and their surroundings. However, research on the impacts of oil palm cultivation is scattered and patchy, and no clear overview exists. We address this gap through a systematic and comprehensive literature review of all ecosystem functions in oil palm plantations, including several (genetic, medicinal and ornamental resources, information functions) not included in previous systematic reviews. We compare ecosystem functions in oil palm plantations to those in forests, as the conversion of forest to oil palm is prevalent in the tropics. We find that oil palm plantations generally have reduced ecosystem functioning compared to forests: 11 out of 14 ecosystem functions show a net decrease in level of function. Some functions show decreases with potentially irreversible global impacts (e.g. reductions in gas and climate regulation, habitat and nursery functions, genetic resources, medicinal resources, and information functions). The most serious impacts occur when forest is cleared to establish new plantations, and immediately afterwards, especially on peat soils. To variable degrees, specific plantation management measures can prevent or reduce losses of some ecosystem functions (e.g. avoid illegal land clearing via fire, avoid draining of peat, use of integrated pest management, use of cover crops, mulch, and compost) and we highlight synergistic mitigation measures that can improve multiple ecosystem functions simultaneously. The only ecosystem function which increases in oil palm plantations is, unsurprisingly, the production of marketable goods. Our review highlights numerous research gaps. In particular, there are significant gaps with respect to socio-cultural information functions. Further, there is a need for more empirical data on the importance of spatial and temporal scales, such as differences among plantations in different environments, of different sizes, and of different ages, as our review has identified examples where ecosystem functions vary spatially and temporally. Finally, more research is needed on developing management practices that can offset the losses of ecosystem functions. Our findings should stimulate research to address the identified gaps, and provide a foundation for more systematic research and discussion on ways to minimize the negative impacts and maximize the positive impacts of oil palm cultivation.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Systematic review, Soil, Ecosystem, Forest, Oil palm, Clearing, Ecosystems