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Can palm oil be grown sustainably? Agroforestry research suggests it can, and without chemicals

Oil palm agroforestry in Brazil.

  • Oil palms are typically grown in large monocultures worldwide, and aside from the deforestation these plantations are typically associated with, water pollution from heavy chemical application is another problem.
  • But must oil palms be grown in monocultures with heavy chemical inputs to produce a profitable crop? Mongabay asked a researcher in Brazil about his group’s findings indicating that they do not.
  • Using an ecologically friendly agroforestry system, the researchers have demonstrated higher yields on 18 demonstration farms: 180 kg of fresh fruit bunches per plant, compared with 139 kg per plant from monocultures.
  • By growing oil palms in an agroforestry system among other useful and profitable crops–like açaí and passionfruit plus timber trees like mahogany and fertilizer trees plus annuals like cassava–farmers have more crops to eat and sell, enjoy greater resilience to palm oil price variations, and can make a competitive profit without using toxic and expensive chemicals.

A recent investigation by Mongabay demonstrated that oil palm plantations in the Amazon do not appear to be ‘green’ as the Brazilian government terms them, but rather are associated with deforestation and rampant use of chemical herbicides and pesticides. Our reporter documented that in the municipality of Tomé-Açu in the northern Amazon state of Pará, an Indigenous community’s health has declined with the arrival of one such plantation, which began planting and spraying oil palms in direct proximity to their homes, with no buffer zone.

But are chemicals needed to grow oil palms profitably on farms? Mongabay contacted Andrew Miccolis, a researcher from the same area of Pará and country coordinator for World Agroforestry (known also by its acronym ICRAF) to find out. He is part of a group studying the incorporation of this useful oil crop into agroforestry systems, where woody perennial and annual crops are grown together so that the various plants benefit each other while providing habitat for wildlife, building soil and water tables, and sequestering carbon.

A joint research project was started here in 2008 with questions like this in mind, when Miccolis says that cosmetics company Natura joined with Embrapa (the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation), and Tomé-Açu Mixed Agricultural Cooperative (CAMTA, a cooperative of agroforestry farmers in Pará), to test the feasibility of oil palm agroforestry systems at three demonstration sites. They called it the SAF Dendê project.

In 2017, World Agroforestry joined these partners to form an alliance supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) aimed at adapting such systems to the needs of family farmers, and to counter the belief that oil palms can’t be cultivated with other species due to competition for light and nutrients. Miccolis told Mongabay that SAF Dendê research on the participating farms (some of which are just six kilometers from the conventional oil palm operation at the heart of Mongabay’s investigation) shows that agroforestry systems can produce high oil palm yields and food while also generating profits and environmental services, including mitigating the effects of climate change.

Mongabay asked Miccolis about these findings and their applicability elsewhere in the world where palm oil is produced. His answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

In the demonstration plots, the fruits of agroforestry are many. Shown here is soursop, also called graviola (Annona muricata). Photo courtesy of Jimi Amaral.

Mongabay: To what extent is oil palm found in agroforestry systems in the Tomé-Açu area?

Andrew Miccolis: Oil palm agroforestry is still a novel idea in the region and throughout the world, since the prevailing technological package has been homogenous monocrop stands of oil palm. Since oil palm expanded in Brazil, some farmers have experimented with intercropping cocoa and black pepper, but most have shied away from mixing in any other crop since most of the oil palm companies expressly prohibited intercropping as they claimed it took inputs (fertilizer and labor) away from their main focus: high oil palm yields. So, farmers were greatly discouraged from diversifying their plantations, and those who did insist on intercropping had to do so informally, without the companies’ support or approval.

Currently, the alliance partners in the SAF Dendê initiative are supporting 18 demonstration sites of oil palm agroforestry on roughly 60 hectares of land – three of which, now 13 years old, were pioneered by Natura, Embrapa and CAMTA beginning in 2008 – and an additional 15 sites focusing on family farmers supported by ICRAF. In the systems we co-designed, there are 35 species grown with oil palm, including cash crops like açaí, cupuaçu, taperebá, Spondias mombin (hog plum), and passion fruit; native hardwoods including ipê, andiroba and exotics like mahogany; plus fertilizer species including inga, Gliricidia, and Tithonia diversifolia (tree marigold).

The demo sites were co-designed with family farmers through participatory action research methods with the aim of developing agroforestry options tailored to the specific socio-environmental context, including farmer aspirations, constraints and access to resources.

Do these agroforestry systems harbor biodiversity, too?

Yes, a great deal. Field workers and researchers have spotted a wide variety of native fauna in the oil palm agroforests, including deer, monkeys, sloths, porcupines, tapirs, and many types of birds, reptiles and insects, which indicates ecologically balanced systems. Soil samples have also shown very rich soil properties and a very high potential for sequestering carbon, well above conventional monocrop systems, and akin to secondary forests.

A juvenile Brazilian tapir (Tapirus terrestris) in the Pantanal. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
A Brazilian tapir (Tapirus terrestris). Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Do oil palms require herbicide and insecticide applications in order to produce a profitable crop?

No. There are examples of large scale organically grown oil palm (even monocrop plantations) using integrated pest management and weeding techniques that don’t require pesticides. Planting in biodiverse, successional agroforests, if properly managed, can also substantially reduce or eliminate the need for pesticides because the systems become more ecologically balanced, healthier and thus more resilient. The demonstration sites in the SAF Dendê project, which are predominantly organic and agroecologically managed, are producing high yields.

With a smaller number of palm plants per hectare than conventional forms of cultivation, the SAF Dendê project reached higher yields as compared to monoculture systems: 180 kg of fresh fruit bunches per plant, compared with 139 kg in monocrops of oil palm. The oil yield from the palm fruit in this system was also substantially higher than in monoculture, based on direct measurement of the fruits. The cultivation methods in the SAF Dendê areas were based on agroecological stewardship, with no pesticides.

And while agroecological/organic production can have higher production costs, in agroforestry systems these can be offset by a market premium and by lower disease and market-related risks, in addition to potential premiums on ecosystem services for products, or payment for environmental services, such as carbon offsets. If you factor in the environmental and human health costs of conventionally grown monocrop systems, then it’s a whole different equation.

Ultimately, though, producing agroecologically requires not just replacing inputs, but also adopting agroecological principles and management practices, such as intercropping with other trees and cycling nutrients through “fertilizer species,” plants which are highly efficient at producing biomass that will feed the systems over time and improve the soil through slash and mulch (instead of slash and burn) techniques. While labor intensive, these techniques and key species can quickly restore soil health, thus also enhancing yields, ecosystem services and the health of the systems as a whole.

This is one of the issues the partners are investigating in this research: modeling financial feasibility of different systems, from simpler to more biodiverse, with and without agrochemicals, to assess trade-offs.

See related: Indigenous agroforestry revives jussara palms and Brazil’s Atlantic Forest

Thirty five different species of fruit, timber, and fertilizer trees are being tested by the demonstration farms. Shown here is a fruit bunch emerging from an oil palm’s first harvest. Photo courtesy of Jimi Amaral.

Are farmers in the area interested in growing oil palm in agroforestry systems?

Overall there is a large appetite for agroforestry in this region, but not much interest in conventional monocrop oil palm through agreements with companies, because farmers feel it is too risky to devote so much of their land and labor to a single commodity crop that is subject to market fluctuations and disease-related risks: also, the technological package companies require to enter into agreements with farmers, including minimum 6-10 hectares of land, little or no intercropping, use of chemical inputs, and high initial costs that must be paid as the palms begin to produce.

A widely held belief is that oil palm cannot be effectively intercropped because of its dominant crowns and root systems, as well as light requirements, but the alliance has debunked this by showing that technically there is no impediment.

So, we feel that more farmers will be interested in oil palm if they are able to intercrop with one or more other crops that are also highly valuable and will give them something to fall back on in the first five years as the oil palm matures to peak production (or if its yields fall short of their expectations), including key food and cash crops. Some of these crops, such as cassava and maize, may not necessarily have a high market value but are extremely important to family farmers’ food security, and in many communities are an integral part of their culture.

The scaling study we are performing as part of this initiative shows that the main constraints to wider adoption of oil palm agroforestry are related to low farmer access to knowledge, including training and technical assistance, particularly on agroforestry and agroecological farming systems, as well as low access to credit, and low availability of on-farm labor for managing large, relatively complex and labor-intensive systems.

While it is important to underscore that some farmers can make a very good living on oil palm by itself, others don’t meet minimum company requirements (land availability and belonging to an association, among others) and the technological package/business model practiced by the oil palm companies is starkly contrasted with the highly diversified and heterogeneous land use and livelihood strategies in which agroforestry plays an important role.

The biggest constraints to producing without pesticides are not technical or agronomic, but mainly a matter of replacing the inputs. The issue is providing farmers access to knowledge on the use of organic inputs, strengthening the supply chain for such inputs, plus adopting agroecological techniques, such as composting to produce organic fertilizer on-farm from available biomass, thus turning a problem into a solution.

A young ipê bracketed by oil palms. Photo courtesy of Jimi Amaral.

How can companies like the one at the center of Mongabay’s investigation in Tomé-Açu improve their operations to answer the health and environmental concerns it raised?

Oil palm companies in general (in this region and beyond) can address many of these concerns by adopting agroecological management techniques and principles in their systems, including species diversity through intercropping, introducing trees in plantations, intensive pruning and mulching to accelerate nutrient cycling, and integrated pest management, among others.

What is the potential for agroforestry-grown oil palm in Brazil, and worldwide?

We feel there is a large potential for oil palm agroforestry in Brazil and globally, as it clearly provides options for enhancing ecosystem services while also reducing farmer risk, bolstering livelihoods and abating the effects of climate change. Likewise, the growing interest among industry groups and demands from consumer groups and industry watchdogs for more sustainable practices is likely to spur more innovation with oil palm agroforestry.

We are supporting the Para state government in improving the enabling environment through the Amazon Now and Sustainable Territories policies for low carbon development programs, and partnering to attract impact (sustainable) investment. Another main barrier for scaling is the weak germplasm supply chain (planting materials including seedlings, seeds, cuttings), particularly for agroforestry species and native fruit and timber trees, which are key to ensuring more biodiverse systems.

See related: Climate, biodiversity & farmers benefit from rubber agroforestry: report

Familiar fruits grow everywhere in the agroforestry plots, like these ready-to-harvest bananas. Photo courtesy of Jimi Amaral.

What else do you want to say about your research?

Regenerative practices adopted in the agroforestry systems established in 2008 resulted in greater fertility and soil carbon stocks, considerably higher than monocrop systems, thus increasing its potential for mitigating climate change. Agroecological stewardship also favored a greater diversity of microorganisms, ranging from 92% to 238% in the oil palm agroforest as compared to monocrop.

Andrew Miccolis is Brazil country coordinator for World Agroforestry and author of Agroforestry Systems for Ecological Restoration: How to reconcile conservation and production. Options for Brazil’s Cerrado and Caatinga biomes, which is available for download in English and Portuguese.

Erik Hoffner is an editor for Mongabay, find him on Twitter via @erikhoffner.

This report is part of Mongabay’s ongoing coverage of trends in global agroforestry, view the full series here

Banner image: One of the demo agroforestry plots shows many species and levels of crops growing together among oil palms, including cacao, açaí, and andiroba (Carapa guianensis). Photo courtesy of Henrique Marques.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: Agroforestry, an ancient climate solution that boosts food production and biodiversity:

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