Confronting the palm oil crisis: Identifying behaviors for targeted interventions

A team of researchers at the University of New England, in New South Wales, Australia, have established that encouraging the purchase of only products that use sustainable palm oil, as well as encouraging manufacturers to use sustainable palm oil are two beneficial target behaviors for addressing the palm oil crisis.

Palm Oil

Image Credit: Nirapai Boonpheng/

In a paper published in the journal Environmental Science & Policy last January, the team also details how awareness and concern about palm oil are important factors in tackling the issue of palm oil use. These findings will be significant in developing effective, targeting interventions for confronting the palm oil crisis.

The increasing demand for palm oil

As the worlds population increases along with its demand for consumer products following modernization of lifestyles and wide-spread urbanization has led to a rising demand for edible oil which is a major component of many foods and even packaging. Because of its many benefits, such as high yield, low-cost production, and versatility, palm oil has emerged as a popular choice of oil for these purposes.

While the palm oil market initially brought some advantages to the areas that farmed the Elaeis guineensis plant, the ever-increasing demand for palm oil has resulted in the expansion of oil palm plantations outside of the farms and into Southeast Asias rainforests. This has triggered numerous environmental concerns and social conflicts.

Data has revealed that over just 15 years, from 1990 to 2015, Indonesia lost a quarter of its rainforests, with palm oil farming being attributed as the major cause of loss. The impact of this deforestation is being seen in the biodiversity of the Southeastern Asia region. Several species such as the pygmy elephant, Sumatran tiger, orangutan, and sun bear ave become endangered because of this activity.

In addition, to clear forests for palm oil growth, the popular technique is the slash-and-burn method which is a massive contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, particularly of carbon. This effect is so significant that it has led to Indonesia being ranked the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter globally.

Further to this, clearing large areas of rainforest is also impacting the communities that once relied on this ecosystem. Hundreds of villages used to depend on the rainforests resources for medical supplies and food, as well as for spiritual and cultural purposes.

While the negative impacts of palm oil farming are well known, the demand for the product continues to rise. Therefore, a team of scientists at the University of New England designed a study that aimed to establish a list of pro-environmental behaviors (PEB) related to the use of palm-oil that could be easily adopted, as well as identifying behaviors that could apply to a behavior-change intervention.

The scientists hoped that the findings of their research would be used to help reduce the negative impact of palm oil farming.

Highlighting pro-environmental behaviors relating to palm oil

The scientists identified 12 experts in the field of palm-oil, such as conservation scientists, activists, and environmental journalists). They conducted semi-structured interviews with each interview to obtain a list of potential palm oil-related PEB. The interviews generated a list of 11 in total.

The team then asked the same 12 experts to rate the list they generated in terms of how potentially effective they believed each item may be at reducing the negative environmental effects of palm oil.

In addition, researchers asked 300 participants to rate these same factors in terms of likeliness and current penetration.

A behavioral population matrix was then used to integrate these scores and uncover the most beneficial PEB which was found to be purchasing products containing only sustainable palm oil”. Also, researchers found that encouraging manufacturers to use sustainable palm oil might have the highest impact.

The findings of this study are a vital first step in initiating behavioral change to beneficially impact the use of palm oil. The results have implications for future policies surrounding palm oil use and production.

Overall, the researchers hope that the detrimental impact of the palm oil industry will be able to be tackled with the behavior changes that they have highlighted.

Journal references:

Basyuni, M., Sulistyono, N., Slamet, B. and Wati, R. (2018). Carbon dioxide emissions from forestry and peatland using land-use/land-cover changes in North Sumatra, Indonesia. IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science, 126, p.012111.

Koh, L. and Wilcove, D. (2008). Is oil palm agriculture really destroying tropical biodiversity?. Conservation Letters, 1(2), pp.60-64.

Sundaraja, C., Hine, D. and Lykins, A. (2020). Confronting the palm oil crisis: Identifying behaviors for targeted interventions. Environmental Science & Policy, 103, pp.99-106.

Sarah Moore

Written by

Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.


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