Since hearts of palm is a plant-based food, you might think it’s sustainable.
Sadly, it’s a misconception that all plant-based food is inherently sustainable.
Hearts of palm can contribute to deforestation as many palm trees are killed in order to produce this fruit.
Here’s everything you need to know about the environmental impact of hearts of palm.
1. How Do Hearts of Palm Affect the Environment?
Hearts of palm – not to be confused with palm oil – are vegetables sourced from the core and buds of some species of palm trees.
You might think that these are sustainable since trees are renewable.
The environmental impact can vary depending on the tree they were sourced from.
Hearts of palm usually come from peach palm, coconut palm, acai palm, juçara palm or sabal palm (also known as sabal palmetto or cabbage palm).
For example, peach palms and acai palms have several stalks.
This means hearts of palm can be sourced without killing the tree if there are stalks left to allow new growth.
These palms can regenerate within two to three years, so it’s still vital to harvest them responsibly to ensure they can replenish themselves.
Coconut palm, sabal palm, and juçara have one stalk, so harvesting hearts of palm kills the tree.
With that said, it’s still possible for multi-stalked palm trees to die if they are harvested irresponsibly, so these types of hearts of palm are not always more sustainable by default.
Hearts of palm are usually sourced from young trees, so they are not given time to mature.
It can take up to two decades for a palm tree to reach its full height, but some trees providing hearts of palm can take between eight to ten years before they are mature enough for harvesting.
So, although hearts of palm are often sourced from young trees, it may still take some time for palm trees to replenish themselves.
Harvesting older palm trees is also unsustainable since, in some cases, this means killing trees that produce seeds.
Demand for hearts of palm can put pressure on palm tree populations, cause deforestation, and even result in extinction.
Although there are regulations in place in many regions to protect the palm populations, some countries, like Brazil, have a history of illegal palm harvesting.
There are also food miles to consider. The term food miles refers to how far food travels before getting to consumers.
Hearts of palm are often grown in Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia, or Costa Rica.
While hearts of palm can be grown in US states such as Florida, they are protected by conservation laws, so most hearts of palm you’ll find in a grocery store were not grown and harvested in the US.
Costa Rica exports approximately 16 million pounds of hearts of palm annually.
So if you do not live in a region that produces hearts of palm, the food miles are going to be quite high.
Research has noted emissions from food miles could be cut by 0.27 GtCO2e (gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent) and food production emissions by 0.11 GtCO2e by solely relying on food grown domestically.
Most types of trees absorb CO2 and release oxygen, but palm trees do little of both.
When trees die or are burned, they release this carbon back into the atmosphere.
The average mature tree will absorb more than 48 pounds of CO2 per year, but a palm tree in Florida may only absorb five pounds per year.
While palm trees aren’t the best defense against climate change, killing them can still release some CO2.
Wild hearts of palm are also still a vital part of the ecosystem.
Palm trees reproduce via seeds, but these seeds are spread through the forest by animals feasting on their fruit and then dispersing the seeds via feces.
Disrupting this ecosystem can impact how many new trees are grown – and can also remove a source of shelter and food for wildlife.
Palms with multiple stems do not always solely rely on seeds as the branches can be propagated, but recklessly harvesting them can still mean there are not enough stalks left to propagate.
2. Do Hearts of Palm Contribute to Deforestation?
Hearts of palm can contribute to deforestation.
As mentioned earlier, hearts of palm can be harvested illegally to meet demand which interferes with sustainable production and forest management.
In addition, palm trees are often cultivated in monocultures in South America and rainforest is cut down for this purpose.
The rainforests of South America are known to be the green lung of our planet.
As a result, cutting down rainforests to plant palm trees is harmful to our climate.
Moreover, many kinds of hearts of palm cannot be harvested without killing the tree, which leaves behind a lot of dead trees, which then release the CO2 stored in them.
Plus, palm trees take several years to mature. So harvesting them irresponsibly and interfering with the ecosystem can put a strain on tree populations as they’re unable to replenish themselves.
3. Are Some Hearts of Palm More Sustainable than Others?
Some hearts of palm are more sustainable than others.
Some species of trees are killed when they’re harvested, while others are more equipped to survive since they have multiple stalks.
As a result, palm hearts made from peach palms and acai palms tend to be more sustainable than from juçara palms or sabal palms (cabbage palms).
As already mentioned, coconut palms are a special case, since they also only have one stalk and are therefore killed when harvesting hearts of palm.
However, palm hearts are usually only harvested from them at the end of their lifespan anyway, because the coconut harvest is more profitable.
4. Can Hearts of Palm Be Cultivated Sustainably?
The more sustainable hearts of palm are harvested from plants that have multiple stems to harvest without killing the tree.
Hearts of palm are often cultivated as mono-crops; it would arguably be more sustainable to rely on polyculture.
In a mono-crop, palm crops are grown with no other plant life.
Not only can these contribute to deforestation and disrupt the ecosystem as land is cleared to make room for farming, but mono-crops can be vulnerable.
With more biodiversity, plants are protected as animals, and other plant species can limit the spread of pests and diseases by feeding on pests or ensuring that sick trees are not in close contact with the rest of the crop.
In Brazil, for example, there are initiatives such as Floresta Viva, which cultivate hearts of palm in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner in order to stop the extensive deforestation.
5. How Can I Recognize Sustainable Hearts of Palm?
Palm trees are not the biggest pesticide users, but organic hearts of palm will be more sustainable.
Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides can also negatively impact the ecosystem, as many are bad for pollinators.
Not only can this reduce pollinator populations, but many plants need to be pollinated to produce fruit, which leaves some animals with less food and inhibits plant reproduction.
Run-off from pesticides can also spread pollution, which is harmful to animals and other plants.
Hearts of palm from palm trees with one stalk-like sabal palms (cabbage palms), juçara palms or coconut palms are the least sustainable, so opt for peach palm or acai palms.
Ideally, you should therefore prefer hearts of palm where the product packaging states which palm species it comes from.
Of course, the best thing would be if you can find a company that relies on biodiversity and avoids deforestation to cultivate their palm trees.