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date: 20 October 2017

Palm and Other Oil Crops

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Oil crops play a critical role in global food and energy systems. Major oil crops include rapeseed, soybean, oil palm, and sunflower. Since these crops have high oil content, they provide cooking oils for human consumption, biofuels for energy, feed for animals, and ingredients in beauty products and industrial processes. In 2014, oil crops occupied approximately 20% of crop-harvested area worldwide. While small-scale oil crop production for subsistence or local consumption continues in certain world regions, global demand for these versatile crops has led to substantial expansion of oil seed agriculture destined for export or urban markets. In particular, development of oil palm in Southeast Asia and soybeans in South America has been identified as major proximate causes of tropical deforestation. This expansion has diverse effects on the environment, including: loss of forests, savannas, and grasslands; greenhouse gas emissions; biodiversity decline; fire; altered water quality and hydrology; homogenization of agroecosystems; and regional climate change. While yield increases are touted as a solution to reducing rates of oil crop expansion into natural ecosystems, the higher profits that often accompany greater yields may actually encourage expansion. Moreover, oil crops are frequently good substitutes for one another and are therefore interlinked in today’s global markets. As a result, changes in oil seed production in one region may have substantial impacts on other crops and regions. Ensuring a sustainable supply of oil seed products to meet global demand remains a major challenge for agricultural companies, farmers, governments, and civil society.