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Doing our part to save insects in palm oil plantations


Reading my morning news headlines the other day, my attention was caught by a story about the global insect population collapse. It seems that we are seeing unprecedented rates of decline of many important insects which act as pollinators, food for other creatures or recyclers of nutrients. We’ve heard about bees being in trouble for years. But in fact pretty soon and certainly in the lifetime of the next generation, there may be large scale extinction of not just bees but butterflies, ants and beetles. Since they all have crucial roles in natural ecosystems, scientists say there will be devastating consequences.

Insects are suffering primarily because of land-use change and intensive agricultural practices which comes with increased and widespread use of chemical pesticides and herbicides. Global warming is also contributing to the problem. Unless we can change the way industrial farming is carried out as well as tackle climate change, the insect decline will continue with cascading catastrophic consequences for the rest of life on Earth including us humans.

Many different species of insects, like the termites pictured here, can be found in palm oil plantations.

How we are preserving and maximising biodiversity

First of all, conversion of forest to plantations comes at a large cost to biodiversity, that’s why first and foremost, we want to ensure our operations are deforestation-free. That said, palm oil plantations still get a bad rap when it comes to biodiversity with attention focused especially on mammals and birds. Many people forget about the insect world and will therefore not be aware that established plantations can still house a surprisingly diverse and abundant insect population, especially if management is carried out with biodiversity in mind.

Maintaining and enhancing biodiversity especially of insects, arachnids and other small creatures is a particular focus of R&D being carried out by GAR’s SMART Research Institute (SMARTRI).

Since 2012, SMARTRI together with Cambridge and Southampton universities, have been involved in the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function Tropical Agriculture (BEFTA) project. It aims to study ways to increase biodiversity levels to help ecosystems function better which incidentally also helps enhance the productivity of plantations.

The BEFTA project is working on three areas:

  1. Understory Vegetation Project which aims to predict and model optimal cover of understory and epiphyte vegetation in plantations so as to maximise biodiversity
  2. Riparian Ecosystem Restoration
  3. Looking at the impacts of extreme weather patterns such as El Nino and how to enhance resilience through increasing biodiversity

Replacing primary forests with plantations of any sort or animal farms has negative impacts on the area’s biodiversity. This is simply an inevitable impact of modern human food production on the natural environment. Nevertheless, the BEFTA project has this to say about palm oil estates:

“Although oil palm houses far fewer species than the tropical rainforest it replaces, it is still complex compared to most agricultural systems, with a diverse understory of herbaceous plants and numerous epiphytes growing on the oil palm trunks. It is also a long-lived crop, with replanting taking place approximately every 25 years. There is, therefore, considerable scope for management practices to increase biodiversity levels within oil palm plantations, with potential benefits for important ecosystem processes and crop yield.”

Anyone who has been to a palm oil estate will agree with this statement because even though there is a design to the plantations, they are not neatly manicured plots devoid of other plants. Nor is it an annual crop requiring replanting and land clearing year after year. At GAR plantations, the understory or undergrowth is encouraged and left largely undisturbed, providing critical habitats for insects and other creatures. Read more about the large variety of insects in palm oil plantations here.

GAR employs a multi-pronged approach when it comes to protecting insect populations in our plantations.

In addition to this critical R&D, GAR has been practicing Integrated Pest Management for decades. This is a multi-prong approach to pest management that looks at ways to minimise chemical pesticide and herbicide use while at the same time employing more ecosystem-friendly methods such as the use of pheromones to trap harmful pests, owls and leopard cats to keep the rat population under control, and the use of biopesticides.

As the BEFTA project continues to provide us with new insights and data about biodiversity in tropical plantations, it will be translated into better eco management at GAR estates including better Integrated Pest Management, and we will share such best practices at international forums. As we enter a critical stage in insect decline around the world, protecting biodiversity within remaining forested areas is one way to preserve their populations, but so too is tailoring management in the most productive of agricultural landscapes, to benefit biodiversity as well as support more-sustainable agricultural production. We hope that our efforts can preserve and maximise this important biodiversity in our corner of the world.

Dr. Edgar Turner, curator of insects at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Zoology, talks about the importance of BEFTA here.

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