Can regenerative agriculture transform palm oil?

Published on: March 23, 2022

Mixing other crops into palm oil plantations can improve soil health, fix carbon and open up new revenue streams for farmers

A farmer walks within a regenerative agriculture project in the Brazilian Amazon. Here, oil palm is planted alongside açaí, cocoa and ingá. (Image: © Jimi Amaral/SAF Dendê via CIFOR-ICRAF Brazil)

On a 100-hectare plot of land nestled in Malaysia, farmers will soon begin an experiment that will turn the idea of a palm oil plantation on its head. Instead of establishing a monocrop, they will plant their oil palms alongside a lush understory of other crops and trees. They will shun chemical fertilisers in favour of organic compost, and start weeding manually to limit disturbance to the soil. “We really want to make this the way of doing agriculture in the future,” says Marco de Boer, CEO of reNature, a Dutch foundation that finances sustainable farming initiatives, and is working with the Malaysian NGO Wild Asia to deliver the project.

The method he’s referring to is regenerative agriculture, though some prefer the terms “agroecology”, “climate-smart farming” or “conservation agriculture”. While it doesn’t have a strict definition, there are two linked goals at its core: to increase biodiversity and improve soil health on farmed lands. It achieves the first through techniques such as intercropping and agroforestry, which transform farmland into mixed-use systems combining commercial crops with native shrubs and trees; and the second via methods like no-till, cover-cropping and mulching, which involves returning organic waste back to the earth.

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Palm can be grown for good, bringing benefits to:

  • Our planet, due to palm oil’s land efficiency.
  • Local communities, due to the economic development oil palm production creates.
  • Our market, due to palm oil’s versatility and functionality as an ingredient, lifting product quality and performance.

Together, we can influence change for:

  • Manufacturers that are still using conflict palm oil for their products.
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  • Brokers and distributors that are still supplying their customers with products that contain conflict palm oil.
  • Shoppers that have the power to vote with their dollar.

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