Palm oil could see huge progress in its sustainability and management with wider use of satellite and remote sensing data, according to Food Ingredients First.
Environmental experts writing in the journal Geospatial Information Science said new technologies could help protect vulnerable land by identifying areas suitable for oil palm expansion, detect illegal deforestation, spot pest and disease problems and improve yield prediction. However, development of many methods is still early and progress is slow.
The new technology also could provide independent monitoring for certification agencies. Frequent cloud cover has been a problem in some areas for satellites, and land-based monitoring is costly and time-consuming. In addition, unmanned aerial vehicles and microwave imagery could provide more reliable information.
Palm oil is the world’s most widely used vegetable oil and offers big advantages for food manufacturers. Not only is it cheaper than other vegetable oils, it also has a long shelf life and processing benefits such as stability at high temperatures and solidity at room temperature. As a result, it has become a popular alternative to partially hydrogenated oils. Managed well, it also is much more land-efficient than other vegetable oils, yielding ten times as much oil per hectare as soybeans, and far outstripping yields from sunflower and rapeseed too.
But the surge in demand has been linked to deforestation and reduced biodiversity in some of the most sensitive environments on the planet.
Several effective strategies have been put in place to spur more sustainable development in the palm oil industry, most notably in the form of pledges from many European countries to source only sustainably produced oil. The world’s largest sovereign investment fund, Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global, worth about $710 billion, also said in 2012 it would stop investing in unsustainable palm oil production.
Food companies such as Mondelez International and Unilever have used their purchasing clout to change production practices, prompting a leading Malaysian producer to commit to reforms earlier this year. Even with increasing uptake of sustainably produced palm oil, the ingredient also suffers from a poor reputation because of its high saturated fat content.
In the United States, the oil accounts for just 8% of domestic vegetable oil consumption because of the high domestic production of soybean oil. Many U.S. companies that use palm oil, including Kraft Heinz, General Mills, Kellogg and Mars committed to sourcing 100% certified sustainable oil by 2015. In products where palm oil’s processing benefits are most important, better monitoring of plantations could prove vital to protect consumer and corporate trust in where the ingredient is sourced from.