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Research on sustainable palm oil cultivation shortlisted for Green Gown Award!

News | Posted on Tuesday 1 August 2023

Work on sustainable palm oil conducted by Professor Jane Hill at the University of York has been selected as a Green Gown Awards UK and Ireland Finalist for Research with Impact!

A research project undertaken by Professor Jane Hill at the University of York, which looks to improve the environmental sustainability of palm oil cultivation, has been selected as a Green Gown Awards UK and Ireland Finalist for Research with Impact.

Sourcing sustainable palm oil

In the race to address one of the most pressing environmental challenges, palm oil production's detrimental impact on deforestation, biodiversity loss, and carbon emissions has been a major concern worldwide. Approximately 30% of vegetable oil globally is sourced from palm oil, driving the expansion of oil palm plantations and resulting in widespread environmental devastation. To tackle this issue, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) emerged as the primary voluntary sustainability certification body for palm oil. In response, the UK committed to sourcing sustainable palm oil and eradicating deforestation from its supply chains.

The RSPO's certification framework emphasises vital measures, including the preservation of forests with High Conservation Values, prohibiting new plantings on primary forest and peatland, and implementing a zero-deforestation policy through the High Carbon Stocks Approach.

At the forefront of this critical issue is the research conducted by Professor Jane Hill and colleagues at the University of York, evaluating the environmental consequences of RSPO certification and examining its impact on biodiversity and carbon conservation. This research delves into the consequences of converting rainforests into oil palm plantations and investigates the ecological benefits of maintaining natural rainforest patches within these plantations.

Research findings

The research findings were both eye-opening and encouraging. Converting forests to oil palm resulted in the loss of about half of the rainforest species, leading to significant changes in animal communities and ecosystem functioning. However, amidst this loss, the research  reveals that the remaining forest patches within RSPO-certified plantations play a pivotal role in providing refuges for biodiversity across the broader landscape.

The larger forest patches, covering a core area of around 200 hectares, support an impressive 60-70% of forest biodiversity and boost plantation carbon stocks by 20%. Additionally, these forest patches contribute to enhancing biodiversity in neighbouring agricultural areas, improving landscape connectivity, and facilitating the movement of species across otherwise inhospitable terrains.

Research impacts

The impact of this research has been far-reaching and transformative. Here are a few highlights: 

  • By influencing zero-deforestation policies adopted by RSPO members, spread across 50 countries globally, the work has contributed to securing the protection of 790,000 hectares of rainforest to-date, providing critical safeguards for rare and threatened species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's 'Red List'.
  • The research has played a pivotal role in shaping the RSPO's High Conservation Values policy, offering recommendations on the minimum effective size of forest patches and providing evidence of their effectiveness in improving landscape connectivity.
  • Policy-relevant findings arising from the research have supported the implementation of High Carbon Stocks Approaches (HCSA), empowering RSPO members, including some of the largest oil palm growers, to uphold their commitments to zero-deforestation.
  • This research is contributing to global efforts in conserving biodiversity (contributing to SDG15) and reducing carbon emissions (by 1.4 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in emissions per year; SDG13).

Celebrating Professor Jane Hill’s work

We are also delighted to announce that Professor Jane Hill has been awarded an OBE for services to conservation ecology in the recent King’s Birthday Honours. 

Professor Hill has been a member of staff at the University of York for more than 20 years. Her work includes research to improve the environmental sustainability of oil palm cultivation and the importance of setting aside patches of rainforest for biodiversity. She is the Associate Dean for Research in the Faculty of Sciences at the University and Professor of Ecology in the Department of Biology.

Currently the president of the Royal Entomological Society, Professor Hill is only the fourth woman to hold this role since 1833. She is also an honorary Fellow of the Society and she received a ZSL Marsh Award for conservation in 2012.

As the Green Gown Awards recognise the efforts and impact of sustainability initiatives, this research's shortlisting as a finalist is a testament to its crucial role in advancing sustainable practices in the palm oil industry. The study's outcomes have provided hope for a more balanced and sustainable future, where the protection of nature and biodiversity goes hand-in-hand with economic progress.

Green Gown Award winners will be announced at the Awards Ceremony which will take place in late November. Stay tuned as we keep you updated on our journey!

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