Oil palm agroforestry yields up to 40% more than conventional plantations.
But as a crop, it has left a massive footprint: oil palm plantations now cover 10% of the world’s agricultural land. Peatland fires and the orange haze they cause have companies looking for ‘forest-friendly’ oil palm. Small-scale farming is often a more sustainable solution. But yields are often lower than those of commercial plantations, and reliance on a single cash crop makes farmers vulnerable to economic volatility.
Agroforestry, or growing other tree crops alongside palms, can boost efficiency, lessen risk, and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Cosmetics maker Natura Brasil teamed up with World Agroforestry to study the potential of smallholder farming that integrates oil palm and cacao trees in the Amazonian state of Pará, northern Brazil.
After five years of research, the mixed palm-cacao systems resulted in 40% higher palm oil yields, better groundwater recharge, and a lower carbon footprint (if the palm oil is used as biofuel), compared to conventional monocrop systems. Mixed plots needed less land to produce the same amount of cocoa and palm oil – meaning more carbon- and biodiversity-rich forestlands could be spared – and had a higher benefit–cost ratio than single-crop plantations.
In this way, we’re helping Natura Brasil establish socially and environmentally responsible supply chains and giving farmers the chance to build more resilient businesses. The next frontier in palm oil may not only be geographic – it can also be sustainable.