Friday, October 23rd, 2009
Palm oil has garnered a lot of news recently. It’s an ingredient in many processed foods and, increasingly, is being used to make biodiesel fuel.
One initial concern was the destruction of tropical rainforests and peatlands to create palm oil plantations. To the extent that these plantations are leading to habitat destruction in places like Indonesia, this threatens species like the orangutan.
In this week’s early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (open access), a team addressed a second potential problem: air pollution, specifically ground-level ozone production.
The news about ozone is potentially confusing, so let me start with a quick primer:
The PNAS article indicates that ozone production is a growing threat in palm plantations, which show higher temperatures and levels of VOCs and nitric oxides than adjacent rainforests.
Although the level of ozone in palm plantations is not yet at a level that threatens health, the team used a model of ozone production to suggest that if nitric oxide emissions were to reach levels seen in the developed Western world (which may be expected with further development and auto use), this could lead to ozone concentrations exceeding 100 ppb, which is considered an emergency air quality event.
Bottom line: In tropical regions, we need to think of how to balance economic development, biofuel production, habitat protection, and–now– human health. To the extent that processed foods and biofuel production are driven largely by consumption in industrialized countries, we share in the responsibility of dealing with this issue.
Already, some companies like Whole Foods have banned unsustainably produced palm oil to combat habitat destruction, but this doesn’t solve the new issue of air pollution. The article suggests that new varieties of palm plants that emit much lower amounts of VOCs could solve this problem. That’s good news.