The Palm Oil Dilemma: It’s a Catch-22

Description: Oil palm plantation (15 km from town; en route to the Athirappilly waterfalls) Image: Irvin Calicut Licensed under- Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Introduction to Oil Palm – A Versatile and Controversial Crop:

Oil palm, scientifically known as Elaeis guineensis, is an agricultural crop that has gained immense global importance in recent decades. Native to West Africa, oil palm is now cultivated across tropical regions worldwide, primarily for its highly versatile and valuable oil. Oil palm trees are distinctive with their long, feathery fronds and large bunches of fruit. These trees produce two types of oil: palm oil, extracted from the fleshy mesocarp of the fruit, and palm kernel oil, derived from the kernel or seed within the fruit.

Palm oil production in North East India has been steadily increasing in recent years. The region’s favourable climate and suitable soil conditions have led to the expansion of palm oil plantations. The cultivation of oil palm trees offers economic opportunities for local farmers and contributes to the region’s agricultural development. Palm oil is an exceptional vegetable oil and is used not only in food but also in products ranging from sweets to shampoo and also as a biofuel. However, the rapid growth of palm oil production in North East India has raised concerns regarding environmental and social impacts. The expansion of plantations has led to deforestation, biodiversity loss, and habitat destruction, affecting the region’s unique ecosystems.

Here in this blog post we will probe into the pros and cons of palm oil, examining both its positive attributes and the environmental challenges associated with its cultivation.

Pros of Palm Oil Cultivation:

Economic Opportunities:

Palm oil cultivation has the potential to generate substantial economic benefits for Northeast India. The industry can create job opportunities, both in the plantations and in downstream activities such as processing and manufacturing. It can contribute to the region’s economic growth and improve the livelihoods of local communities.

High Productivity:

Palm oil is known for its high oil yield per unit area compared to other oilseed crops. This means that a smaller land area is required to produce a significant amount of oil, making it an efficient crop in terms of land utilization. If the world’s entire supply of vegetable oils came from palm oil, we would need 77 million hectares of land. If it came solely from sunflower oil, on the other hand, we would need more than four times the amount of land (312 million hectares). Environmental organizations such as the International Union For Conservation Of Nature say that, instead, we need to prevent further deforestation for new oil palm plantations and focus on promoting sustainable production. This can be particularly advantageous in regions with limited arable land, like some parts of Northeast India.

Increased Income for Farmers:

For small-scale farmers in Northeast India, cultivating palm oil can provide an additional source of income. By diversifying their crops, farmers can reduce their reliance on traditional agricultural practices and enhance their financial stability. Palm oil cultivation can serve as a lucrative alternative, especially given the high demand for the product in the global market.

Rural Development:

Palm oil cultivation can contribute to rural development in Northeast India. It can attract investment in infrastructure, such as roads and processing facilities, which can improve connectivity and access to markets. Additionally, the presence of palm oil plantations can lead to the development of ancillary industries, providing further economic opportunities for the local population.

Cons of Palm Oil Cultivation:

Deforestation and Habitat Loss:

One of the biggest concerns associated with palm oil cultivation is the potential for deforestation and habitat destruction. The expansion of plantations often involves clearing natural forests, which can lead to the loss of biodiversity and displacement of wildlife. Northeast India is home to rich and diverse ecosystems, including endangered species. Unsustainable palm oil cultivation practices can threaten these fragile environments.

Environmental Impact:

Palm oil is a crop that requires a significant amount of water to grow. It is classified as a thirsty crop due to its high water demand throughout its growth cycle and the intensive cultivation of palm oil requires the use of fertilizers and pesticides, which can have adverse effects on the environment. Runoff from plantations can pollute water bodies and harm aquatic ecosystems. Additionally, palm oil cultivation contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, which can contribute to climate change. According to a 2018 study, replacing rainforest with oil palm plantations releases 61% of the carbon stored in the forest, mostly into the atmosphere. Each hectare of rainforest converted releases 174 tonnes of carbon. Addressing these environmental concerns is crucial to ensure sustainable palm oil production.

Land Rights and Social Issues:

The expansion of palm oil plantations in Northeast India can raise land rights and social issues. The expansion of oil palm plantations often involves the acquisition of land, which can result in conflicts with local communities, indigenous people and small-scale farmers. In some cases land may be taken without proper consultation, consent, or fair compensation, leading to disputes over land ownership and use rights.

Gender inequality can exist within oil palm plantations, with women often facing limited access to land, lower wages and fewer opportunities for advancement.

This can lead to conflicts and social unrest. Respecting the rights of local communities and involving them in decision-making processes is essential to mitigate these concerns.

Monoculture and Loss of Crop Diversity:

The large-scale cultivation of palm oil often leads to monoculture, where vast areas are dedicated solely to palm trees. This can result in the loss of crop diversity and negatively impact local food security. The reliance on a single crop makes the region vulnerable to pests, diseases, and market fluctuations in the oil palm industry in volatility and changes in palm oil prices and demand. Efficient transportation and logistics are essential for the timely delivery of palm oil fruits to the market. In areas with adequate road infrastructure such as some regions in the North East, this can pose challenges for palm oil producers.


The cultivation of palm oil in Northeast India presents both benefits and challenges. While it offers economic opportunities and agricultural diversification, the environmental and social consequences cannot be ignored. It is essential to strike a balance between economic development and sustainable practices, adopting measures such as promoting agroforestry, improving land use planning and implementing a responsible certification scheme. By addressing these concerns, palm oil cultivation in Northeast India can be undertaken in a manner that minimizes its negative impact on the environment while maximizing its potential benefits for the communities.


Austin, K. G, Mosnier, A., Pirker, J., McCallum, I., Fritz, S., & Kasibhatla, P. S. (2017). Shifting patterns of oil palm driven deforestation in Indonesia and implications for zero-deforestation commitments. Land Use Policy, 69, 41-48l

H.S. Sathya Chandra Sagar, Amani Mabano, Ramya Roopa, Mahmuda Sharmin, Freddie-Jeanne Richard, and Julia Clause. (2019) India in the Oil Palm Era: Describing India’s Dependence on Palm Oil, Recommendations for Sustainable Production, and Opportunities to become an Influential Consumer. Tropical Conservation Science volume 0: 1-9. doi: 10.1177/1940082919838918’s_Dependence_on_Palm_Oil_Recommendations_for_Sustainable_Production_and_Opportunities_to_Become_an_Influential_Consumerll

Mike Shanahan (2023, June 13) Palm oil: The pros and cons of a controversial commodity

Rupai Chinai, Ravi Chellam (2023, March 30) ‘A disaster in making: Expansions of oil palm plantations in Northeast India’

The Palm Oil Dilemma: It’s a

By Kevide Lcho.

Highland Institute
Highland Institute
Articles: 48

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