Palm oil itself isn’t the enemy — it’s where and how it’s grown that we need to change. The problem with the maligned crop isn’t its popularity, but where it’s planted. People often make rash statements about things being good or bad, I say research it for yourself and then make an informed choice and this applies to everything, not just palm oil. To help you I have put together a little information about palm oil which brings together all the bits I have gleaned over the years, I am not an expert by any means so read it and make your own decisions . It’s increasingly apparent that even if we could all boycott the stuff, that might not be so wise: As destructive as the oil palm industry is to the environment, it may be better than the alternatives. No other crop can yield even a third as much oil per acre planted. And along with using less land, the oil palm gobbles up significantly fewer pesticides and chemical fertilizers than coconut, corn or any other vegetable oil source. Oil palm yields 4–10 times more oil per hectare than other oil seed crops, including soybean and canola.
Put another way, this means more oil produced on less land. In fact, palm oil represents about 38% of the world’s supply of edible oil, but it’s grown on only 5% of the land dedicated to oil seed crops globally. With international demand for edible oils growing steadily, more oil from less land is a good thing.
From a health perspective, palm oil is the ideal substitute for partially hydrogenated oils, the “trans fats” that food processors love and health experts hate. Palm oil is semisolid at room temperature and can stay stable for long periods without going rancid. Sustainable palm oil may be elusive, but it’s possible—and, in fact, it may even be necessary for the planet’s healthy future.
It is estimated that palm oil or ingredients derived from it are used in half of the products on the average supermarket shelf.
So yes, it’s in your food, your lipsticks and skin lotions, your shampoo and toothpaste and a wide range of other packaged foods and personal care products. In part, that’s because palm oil is a highly versatile product that lends itself well to food products and processing, and is naturally free of trans fats.
Oil palm cultivation produces more metric tons of oil per hectare than any other vegetable oil. The tree can grow on a range of soils, requires relatively little in terms of fertilizers and pesticides, and bears fruit year-round, making it an attractive crop for smallholders.
The crop’s efficiency underscores why boycotting all palm oil will not stop deforestation. If demand for all palm oil halted tomorrow, it would be replaced with demand for other vegetable oils, whose cultivation could actually increase the amount of land needed to produce the same amount of oil, destroying more forests and releasing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Palm oil generates tens of billions of dollars in revenue for producing countries, and is estimated to employ more than 6 million people globally.
Many problems stem from the fact that too much oil palm has been planted at the expense of tropical forest. These forests are a critical source of food, medicines and other materials; they are vital to regulating weather patterns and buffering local communities from storms and floods, and are home to many of the world’s most unique and threatened species (including orangutans). Forests also play a critical role in maintaining healthy watersheds and river systems that are essential for communities and downstream agriculture.
And loss of forests doesn’t just impact local communities. Deforestation is one of the leading sources of greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change.
As a consumer, you too have a voice — and you should use it. If your favorite product contains palm oil, contact the manufacturer and ask them to use certified sustainable palm oil from suppliers that have made a clear commitment to halt deforestation.
Concerned buyers can also look for a seal of approval from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Some critics argue that the RSPO, founded in 2004 by industry leaders, doesn’t go far enough: Its standards forbid deforestation only in “high conservation value areas,” a term that has no legal definition. And a trader who earns an RSPO certificate can go on to mix “clean” and uncertified oil. What’s more, the world’s largest palm oil markets are in India, China and Indonesia, where most consumers—who use it for cooking—may not even be aware of such options.
An increasing number of people are aware of the problems palm oil cultivation is causing and has decided to boycott products containing palm oil. Usually this means boycotting products from supermarkets that contain palm oil. However, half of all the palm oil that is being imported by the EU is used to make biofuel. Therefore, the increase in biofuel is the main reason for the growing demand for palm oil. Since 2009, the EU has made it compulsory to mix biofuel with regular fuel. As the palm oil cultivation is the most efficient and cheapest biofuel, EU countries mostly choose palm oil as the biofuel that they add to their regular fuel in order to adhere to EU regulations. Some other types of biofuel are also used, such as left-over cooking oil and other types of oil, but these are much more expensive and much more damaging to the environment when produced on a scale as big as the current palm oil cultivation. Therefore, palm oil is still the most used biofuel.
Palm oil is used in almost all types of animal feed. By consuming animal products you do contribute significantly to the palm oil industry and the devastation its causing. This is especially saddening as it’s completely unnecessary to use palm oil in animal feed and it’s mainly added because it’s cheap.
Sustainable palm oil
In an attempt to solve the problems the palm oil industry is causing, the organisation Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was founded in 2004. The RSPO is a non-profit organisation that brings palm oil producers, palm oil buyers and NGOs together to discuss solutions for the environmental and human rights problems related to palm oil cultivation. Together they have created the RSPO certificate that indicates a product is made with sustainable palm oil. In recent years there is more awareness of palm oil related issues and consumers have pressed for more sustainable palm oil. Because of this, about 19 percent of palm oil companies currently has a RSPO certificate and is therefore labelled sustainable. Big companies, such as Unilever, only work with 100 percent certified sustainable palm oil and 90 percent of the palm oil used in the Netherlands is sustainable.
While this seems like a very positive development and the possible solution to the palm oil problem, unfortunately it isn’t. In reality, the RSPO certificate and the label of ‘sustainable palm oil’ are meaningless. The RSPO has not defined many requirements for ‘sustainable’ palm oil. Many big producers of ‘sustainable’ palm oil can’t indicate where all their palm oil is being produced and often sell their palm oil with the RSPO label for a long time before the plantations are actually examined. The rules for getting a RSPO certificate are also misleading. For example, a palm oil company that has one plantation that meets the sustainability requirements is allowed to sell all its palm oil with the sustainable palm oil label, even when the other plantations are not sustainable. In addition, there is no clear separation of sustainable and non-sustainable palm oil as palm oil from different plantations are always mixed. Therefore, companies mostly buy a nice sounding certificate and not palm oil that is any more sustainable than ‘ordinary’ palm oil.
Sustainable palm oil clearly isn’t the solution, but what is? The problems surrounding palm oil cultivation are pretty severe, so it’s only logical that many people want to do something about that. Therefore, some people have decided to boycott all products that contain palm oil, sometimes including products with sustainable palm oil. While this is quite a logical choice, unfortunately it doesn’t help to reduce deforestation of rain forests and human rights violations. In fact, switching to other types of oil will require even more land and therefore more deforestation than the cultivation of palm oil, as palm oil is one of the most efficient and sustainable types of oil. From one hectare of oil palms, about 3.7 tonnes of palm oil can be made every year. For a hectare of sunflowers this is only 0.7 tonnes of sunflower oil. Therefore, if a palm oil boycott would force producers to switch to other oils and they would probably choose sunflower oil, this would require 5 times more land to make the same amount of oil. This would be really bad for the environment and would likely lead to more land being stolen. In addition, a lot of other types of oil are also a lot more polluting as their cultivation requires more chemical fertilizer and pesticides or it creates toxic waste as a by-product (as is the case with olive oil).
So then what would be the solution? Unfortunately, the main problem is that more and more agricultural land is necessary to keep up with consumers’ increasing demand for food and other products. The only way to end deforestation is by limiting our ecological footprint, for example by consuming less, not buying unnecessary products and paying attention to the environmental costs of products (including the amount of land needed to make a product). Unfortunately, consuming less is not very popular among both consumers and producers, so it’s not surprising that both producers and NGOs prefer to focus on a more profitable approach, such as advocating ‘sustainable’ palm oil.
If we’d all consume less and use less land, there would be no need for deforestation. However, as the palm oil industry won’t die out, it remains important to encourage palm oil companies to work in a sustainable and human friendly way. This is also the approach that is advocated by the Sumatran Orangutan Society. This can be done by asking NGOs to implement stricter rules and conduct more inspections for sustainable palm oil certificates and asking producers to make environmentally friendly choices.