Systematic review of effects on biodiversity from oil palm production (systematic review)


During the past decade there has been a growing interest in bioenergy, driven by concerns about global climate change, growing energy demand, and depleting fossil fuel reserves. The predicted rise in biofuel demand makes it important to understand the potential consequences of expanding biofuel cultivation.

A systematic review was conducted on the biodiversity impacts of three first-generation biofuel crops (oil palm, soybean, and jatropha) in the tropics. The study focused on the impacts on species richness, abundance (total number of individuals or occurrences), community composition, and ecosystem functions related to species richness and community composition.


Literature was searched using an a priori protocol. Owing to a lack of available studies of biodiversity impacts from soybean and jatropha that met the inclusion criteria set out in the systematic review protocol, all analyses focused on oil palm. The impacts of oil palm cultivation on species richness, abundance, and community similarity were summarized quantitatively; other results were summarized narratively.


The searches returned 9143 articles after duplicate removal of which 25 met the published inclusion criteria and were therefore accepted for the final review. Twenty of them had been conducted in Malaysia and two thirds were on arthropods.

Overall, oil palm plantations had reduced species richness compared with primary and secondary forests, and the composition of species assemblages changed significantly after forest conversion to oil palm plantation. Abundance showed species-specific responses and hence, the overall abundance was not significantly different between plantations and forest areas. Only one study reported how different production systems (smallholdings vs. industrial estates) affect biodiversity. No studies that examined the effects on ecosystem functions of reduced species richness or changes in community composition met the inclusion criteria. Neither were there studies that reported how areas managed under different standards (e.g. different certification systems) affect biodiversity and ecosystem function.


Our review suggests that oil palm plantations have reduced species richness compared with primary and secondary forests, and the composition of species assemblage changes significantly after forest conversion to oil palm plantation. Effects of different production systems on biodiversity and ecosystem function are clear knowledge gaps that should be addressed in future research.


Land use change, Mitigation, Oil palm, Species diversity, Tropical forest


Biofuels, or fuels derived from transformation of biological matter, are hailed by some as a promising source of renewable energy potentially reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A widespread adoption of biofuels will however present its own set of challenges and consequences. Direct or indirect land use change due to expansion of feedstock cultivation can cause deforestation and forest degradation leading to biodiversity losses and other environmental concerns like soil degradation and erosion, water pollution and scarcity, and the risk of crop species invading natural ecosystems.

Although biofuel production is currently not the main use of palm oil and soybean and hence, has so far contributed only little to the land-use change patterns, it has been predicted to grow. Therefore, it is important to know the potential consequences of the expansion of biofuel cultivation may have for biodiversity in order to provide policy guidance.


In this review, we will assess the current state of knowledge of the impact of three first generation biofuel crops – oil palm, soybean, and jatropha – on the biodiversity and ecosystem functions of the tropical forests. We will look at the additional comparison of impacts from industrial versus smallholder plantations, and will compare the mitigation potential of different standards related to biofuel production. We will consider both qualitative and quantitative primary studies as well as descriptive reports that compare land conversion for target crop production with other land uses or land cover types. Both before/after and site comparison studies will be included, and biodiversity indicators to be assessed are species richness, abundance, and plant and animal community composition. If there is enough data, quantitative meta-analysis will be performed. Otherwise results will be summarized narratively.