Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Palmed Off

Or can I have my chocolate cake and coffee and consume them to?

The figure below was compiled from FAO statistics and shows the area planted to four everyday food commodity crops. Food crop here means only that these crops are ingested by humans as two of them have no calorific value whatsoever. And while cocoa oil can act as a “food” it is a non essential entertainment food (i.e. luxury) consumed mainly in rich countries – with much of the calories being made up from sugar and other sources of fat (animal) or palm oil.

Palmed Off

The point of posting this graph is to demonstrate firstly, the rapid growth in area planted to palm oil. But that is a frequent topic on energy blogs anyway.

What also interested me was the fact that the area planted to palm oil only exceeded that planted to coffee in 2000: something I have never heard reported or discussed. It surpassed cocoa in about 1985.  In fact in all the talk of the environmental destruction of oil palms there is never any mention of the historical (often colonial era) destruction as a result of coffee, chocolate and tea. Using area as our statistic the environmental destruction due to coffee and cocoa still exceeds that of oil palms.

In some respects tea and coffee may be considered more damaging then cocoa. While oil palms and cocoa trees compete for space in the tropical lowlands, coffee and especially tea are planted at altitude. A moments thought should be enough to realize that the unique habitats displaced for tea and coffee were more limited in area to begin with. With climate change, these areas are especially vulnerable.


Picture of a small tea plantation near my location. Altitude ~1500 meters.

Note near complete replacement of native vegetation in foreground.

Cocoa is a total energy drain. The fruiting is a little unpredictable (i.e. synchrony is lowish) and fruit yields variable. Most of the mass of the fruit is disposed of (it can be digested for biogas or composted) to harvest the seeds. Seeds are fermented and then dried before most are shipped to Europe and the US where they are roasted (energy) milled and mixed (sometimes for long periods to give that special “melt in the mouth” smoothness) and heat treated to yield that glossy smooth texture. Most of the “value adding” is done in developed nations, the harvesting in developing nations depends on poverty. I say this to highlight that chocolate might almost be unaffordable at developed nation labor costs. Picking can not be done mechanically – it damages the fruiting part of the tree.

Coffee has some similar production steps. Harvesting is followed by fermentation and drying before nearly 90% of coffee beans are shipped to Hamburg, Germany. In other words, the growing and harvesting depends on low paid labor. In the big scheme of things, current “fair trade” efforts, while a noble step in the right direction are the feel good filter on the caffeine fix.

Tea is fermented, rubbed and dried at or near the plantation.

I am not suggesting that Oil Palms are THE energy solution – they may yet play a part. But in the discussion about food and biofuels and the potential food deficit this competition might contribute to in developing countries, lets not forget the forgone food hectares already created by the little colonial luxuries of developed countries.

Palm Oil is at least grown, extracted, processed and frequently used locally – either as a cooking oil, food, medicine (or topical oil) or fuel. It has multiple uses.

Want to act local? Carob, Chicory or Chamomile anyone?

The WWF provides some information to get you started;

Agriculture and Environment: Cocoa

Agriculture and Environment: Coffee

Agriculture and Environment: Tea

Palm oil: environmental impacts


Purdue University has some interesting information on energy crops (economics, yields & energy content)

Elaeis guineensis     (Oil Palm) ~ 2.5 Metric Ton oil/ha/year (or higher)                 

Theobroma cacao    (Cocoa)  oil yields of ~ 350 kg/ha.(potentially more)

Coffea arabica         Brazilian average yield is 400 kg/ha

Camellia sinensis     (Tea) yields in Sri Lanka ~ 6,700 kg/ha

Global Forest Watch - FAQ
Global Deforestation -lecture from University of Umich
Earth Trends Watersheds of the World - Remaining Original Forest Cover

Frontier Forests of the World (Univ. Michigan)
Red = Frontier Forests, 8,000 years ago
Green = Frontier Forests Today
Pink = Current non-frontier forests


Big Gav said...

So you are saying the green drink of choice needs to be tea over coffee, hot chocolate or cocoa ?

SP said...

If you have to buy then tea would be better.

But if you have a garden, commodities like these can be substituted. Herb teas (e.g. mint and chamomile) or chicory root. In Mediterranean - temperate climes carob is not only a chocolate substitute, but a fodder plant and source of nitrogen.

An implied point is, can you have "moral outrage" at oilpalms without addressing these crops?

SP said...

Maybe a topic for another post... and I don't want to "defend" the deforestation due to Oil Palms. But unless western nations are prepared to pay a respectable annual dividend to local land owners (or foreign Govts)why shouldn't they if they perceive a benefit?

From the perspective of a developing country, do they see much replanting (restoration) of the US, Canada, or Australia.

Big Gav said...

Without wanting to defend the US, I believe a huge swathe of the eastern US that was deforested has returned to forest over the past century.

SP said...

I was thinking of that when I posted that comment... But from what I know (not much) the reforestation is limited to the north east.
The issue is complicated by what one considers the best metric. IE are large areas of plantations the same as virgin forest? And even regrowth takes a long time (if ever)to regain even a fraction of the diversity of the original.
I guess what I was really getting at was this:
US Deforestation
Global Forest Cover
scroll over the tags below the image-shows how much forest was lost in Europe and Russia

The argument is not necessarily a good one, but one that needs an answer; you did it so why can't we?