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Learning about the sustainability of palm oil production from the perspective of "soil science"

The 5th of December is the World Soil Day. To coincide, a webinar, 'Sustainable oil palm cultivation from the soil health perspective', will be organized by Solidaridad Japan on 7 December. JIZOKEN representative Yoshida will also be moderating the session.

In preparation for this, I read two books by the lecturer Kazuyoshi Fujii: '500 Million Years of the Earth: Creatures Struggling with the Soil' and 'Soil: The Last Mystery of the Earth - In Search of Soil that Can Feed 10 Billion People'. I learnt that the world looks completely different when you change your point of view.

For instance, before Indonesia's rapid economic growth began in the 2000s, the island of Java was facing a major policy challenge of 'rural poverty' caused by high population density and fragmented agricultural land. The Indonesian government promoted policies such as creating off-farm employment and migrating farmers to other islands to solve this.

On the other hand, looking at Java from a soil science perspective, "the island is rich in soil and water, and the volcanoes and rivers keep supplying nutrients, so it has been able to produce food and increase its population". (However, self-sufficiency in rice only became possible after the 1980s, with the progress of the Green Revolution, including the development of irrigation and the introduction of new varieties.) The same applies to Bangladesh and India.

On the contrary, in Borneo, "the soil is not suitable for rice cultivation and can only be used for forests", so the Dutch, the colonial suzerain state, did not develop the island, and the population density was low.

Since 2000, however, oil palm cultivation has spread in both Malaysian and Indonesian territories in Borneo. Although companies mainly developed plantations, small-scale farmers have also switched from growing upland rice, rubber and fruit trees to oil palm. This is because oil palm can be harvested with a considerable input of fertilizer and is more 'profitable' than other crops. However, if more fertilizer is applied than the oil palm can absorb, the soil is degraded, and the river basin becomes eutrophic, making oil palm cultivation unsustainable.

Then, what is 'soil richness'? What mechanisms are causing 'soil degradation' and 'river eutrophication'? How does this relate to global issues such as climate change? When we talk about environmental issues, do we clearly understand these issues? Don't we promote or oppose 'environmentally friendly/bad' based only on vague images?

In this webinar, Dr Fujii will present basic soil knowledge to broaden our understanding and discuss sustainability using oil palm production areas as a case study. We look forward to your participation.

(by Hidemi YOSHIDA)


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