The prob­lem with palm oil

Palm oil has been hit­ting the head­lines for years now, but the is­sue isn’t as black and white as it might seem

World of Animals - - What’s Inside... - Words Vic­to­ria williams

Will shun­ning it re­ally save the world’s orang­utans?

It is fair to say that palm oil has be­come a highly charged topic in en­vi­ron­men­tal cir­cles in re­cent years, with many dif­fer­ent ar­gu­ments swirling around its use and im­pact on pre­cious habi­tats. Yet while the de­bate may have only en­tered the spotlight in the last few years, the oil at the cen­tre of it has been around for a long time.

The African oil palm (Elaeis guineen­sis) is na­tive to West Africa, and the oil made from its fruit pulp and ker­nel has been used by hu­mans for at least 5,000 years; oil dis­cov­ered in an an­cient Egyp­tian tomb sug­gests that palms and fruit were be­ing trans­ported and traded by peo­ple as far back as 3,000 BCE.

Al­though oil has been ex­tracted from this tree for mil­len­nia, the story of to­day’s mass pro­duc­tion re­ally be­gins just over 100 years ago. Two Bri­tish men first in­tro­duced oil palms to Malaysia in 1910, and plan­ta­tions started to spring up soon af­ter when the ease and yield of the crop was re­alised.

To­day, 85 per cent of the world’s palm oil comes from Malaysia, where al­most 14 per cent of the coun­try’s to­tal area is made up of oil palm plan­ta­tions. The plant is easy to grow and care for, mak­ing it an ideal crop for both small-scale farm­ers and large plan­ta­tions. The oil has many prop­er­ties that make it use­ful; it’s smooth, vir­tu­ally taste­less and semi-solid at room tem­per­a­ture, and

it con­tains vi­ta­mins A and E. Both the pulp and ker­nel of the fruit can be pro­cessed to pro­duce oil ready for use in food, soap, cos­met­ics and fuel. Most im­por­tantly, it’s ex­tremely land-ef­fi­cient and yields up to 30 times more oil per hectare than other vegetable oil crops.

Ef­fi­cient, use­ful and ver­sa­tile, palm oil sounds like the per­fect prod­uct, so why has it be­come the sub­ject of such con­tro­versy? Much of the de­bate sur­rounds the de­for­esta­tion caused by the palm oil in­dus­try. While the crop re­quires less land than other oil-pro­duc­ing plants, it does still need some­where to grow, and the rock­et­ing de­mand has re­sulted in the clear­ing – both legally and il­le­gally – of vast ar­eas of rain­for­est.

From 1989 to 2000 the area of land con­verted for palm oil more than tripled in In­done­sia, and Malaysia lost an av­er­age of 0.65 per cent of its forests an­nu­ally be­tween 2000 and 2007. Clear­ing this es­tab­lished habi­tat hugely re­duces the bio­di­ver­sity of an area and de­stroys the homes of the pre­cious species liv­ing there. Dis­placed an­i­mals wan­der­ing into plan­ta­tions in search of food or shel­ter can of­ten find them­selves in trou­ble, as farm­ers will hurt or even kill them in order to de­fend their source of in­come. Some shock­ing predictions give orang­utans and Su­ma­tran tigers just a few more years of life in their nat­u­ral wild habi­tats if de­for­esta­tion con­tin­ues at its cur­rent rate.

The prob­lems aren’t just en­vi­ron­men­tal though; forests keep lo­cal wa­ter sources clean, and their roots pre­vent land­slides that could dam­age homes and en­dan­ger lives by hold­ing the soil to­gether. There have also been many re­ports of poor work­ing con­di­tions for the farm­ers and labour­ers em­ployed on plan­ta­tions and in pro­cess­ing

“The de­mand for palm oil has re­sulted in the clear­ing – both legally and il­le­gally – of vast ar­eas of rain­for­est”

plants, mean­ing their is also a very real hu­man cost paid for the pro­duc­tion of palm oil.

Hav­ing pre­vi­ously been listed sim­ply as vegetable oil, it wasn’t un­til a 2014 EU law was passed on food la­bel clar­ity that con­sumers be­gan to re­alise just how many prod­ucts con­tain palm oil. Even now, the full scale of the is­sue is of­ten not un­der­stood be­cause man­u­fac­tur­ers can list in­gre­di­ents de­rived from palm oil un­der al­ter­na­tive names like sodium ker­nelate and sodium lau­ryl sul­fate. With this in­creased aware­ness the is­sues sur­round­ing palm oil pro­duc­tion found their way on to the news and into heated de­bates. Many me­dia sources turned palm oil into some­thing of a scare story, omit­ting im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion and paint­ing palm oil as en­tirely bad.

Ever since palm oil en­tered the spotlight there have been fre­quent calls for a to­tal ban, but this is un­likely to solve the prob­lem. Mil­lions of peo­ple now rely on palm oil for their in­come, and it’s a sig­nif­i­cant con­trib­u­tor to sev­eral de­vel­op­ing na­tions’ economies, so halt­ing all pro­duc­tion would leave many fam­i­lies in poverty. If palm oil were out­lawed en­tirely, farm­ers would turn to other oils to fill the gap left be­hind.

“Many me­dia sources turned palm oil into some­thing of a scary story, omit­ting im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion”

Of all the land used to pro­duce vegetable oils, palm oil cur­rently grows on just five per cent and pro­duces al­most 40 per cent of global sup­ply. To meet de­mand with other plants, much more space would be needed and more for­est would be cleared.

Since stop­ping palm oil pro­duc­tion isn’t a vi­able op­tion, ef­forts are be­ing made to en­sure it’s done sus­tain­ably. We spoke to the Roundtable on Sus­tain­able Palm Oil (RSPO), a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion body es­tab­lished in 2004 to pro­mote sus­tain­able growth and pro­duc­tion.

“RSPO is a not-for-profit in­ter­na­tional mem­ber­ship or­gan­i­sa­tion that unites stake­hold­ers from the dif­fer­ent sec­tors of the palm oil in­dus­try – in­clud­ing palm oil pro­duc­ers, pro­ces­sors and traders, con­sumer goods man­u­fac­tur­ers, re­tail­ers, banks/in­vestors, and en­vi­ron­men­tal and so­cial non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions (NGOs) – to de­velop and im­ple­ment global stan­dards for sus­tain­able palm oil pro­duc­tion.

All of the al­most 4,000 RSPO mem­bers have re­quire­ments as a part of their mem­ber­ship. It is a shared re­spon­si­bil­ity where the RSPO as a sys­tem is not a fixer but a fa­cil­i­ta­tor of the so­lu­tion. The vi­sion of RSPO is to trans­form mar­kets to make sus­tain­able palm oil the norm, not just to trans­form sus­tain­able palm oil pro­duc­tion.”

The RSPO has come in for some crit­i­cism for its slow progress and for al­low­ing its mem­bers to cut down ar­eas of es­tab­lished for­est. In re­sponse it is ap­par­ently work­ing to re­vise its stan­dards and the cri­te­ria that must be met for mem­ber­ship.

A key fo­cus of the move­ment to­wards sus­tain­able palm oil pro­duc­tion is the use of grass­land and de­graded land for

new plan­ta­tions rather than dis­turb­ing pris­tine for­est. Man­aged care­fully, this use of open ar­eas of land could pro­tect re­main­ing rain­for­est and avoid fur­ther con­flict be­tween peo­ple and wildlife. Or­gan­i­sa­tions are in­volv­ing lo­cal stake­hold­ers in the change to re­spon­si­ble grow­ing and work­ing to en­sure plan­ta­tion em­ploy­ees are op­er­at­ing in safe and fair con­di­tions. Us­ing nat­u­ral re­sources like wa­ter care­fully and mak­ing sure there is trans­parency at every stage of pro­duc­tion are also cru­cial to min­imis­ing the neg­a­tive im­pacts of this valu­able crop.

Col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween con­ser­va­tion­ists, com­pa­nies, palm oil pro­duc­ers and pol­icy mak­ers is es­sen­tial for bring­ing about change. Cat Bar­ton, field pro­grammes man­ager at Ch­ester Zoo, says, “Palm oil has the po­ten­tial to be very en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly if it is grown sus­tain­ably. Bring­ing to­gether key play­ers from across the food in­dus­try and con­ser­va­tion com­mu­nity is vi­tal if we are to work to­gether to solve this cri­sis and be part of the so­lu­tion. Ac­tion is crit­i­cal and ur­gent.”

Ch­ester Zoo is an ac­tive player in the drive for sus­tain­able palm oil and has been lead­ing the bid to make Ch­ester the world’s first Sus­tain­able Palm Oil City, even or­gan­is­ing an event at the Houses of Par­lia­ment in Lon­don to bring to­gether politi­cians, con­ser­va­tion ex­perts and mem­bers of the food in­dus­try. It has also launched the Sus­tain­able Palm Oil Chal­lenge through its Act For Wildlife cam­paign.

“There have been huge in­creases in the de­mand for cer­ti­fied sus­tain­able palm oil, but we could all be do­ing more to pro­mote its use,” ex­plains Cat. “Through the re­la­tion­ships we have with our part­ners in Malaysia, In­done­sia and around the world, we know about the dev­as­tat­ing im­pact of un­sus­tain­able palm oil on wildlife. We won’t stand back. That’s why we’ve

“Much needs to be im­proved... but we be­lieve a ban on palm oil is not the right way”

launched the Sus­tain­able Palm Oil Chal­lenge – a way of cel­e­brat­ing the com­pa­nies who are al­ready com­mit­ted to sus­tain­able palm oil, sup­port­ing those that want to be­come sus­tain­able and mak­ing it eas­ier for us all to pick sus­tain­able prod­ucts when we’re do­ing our shop­ping.”

Many ex­perts agree that palm oil has the po­ten­tial to be­come a hugely ben­e­fi­cial crop in a world short of food if it’s grown and used re­spon­si­bly. While most big changes to the in­dus­try will rely on man­u­fac­tur­ers and gov­ern­ment poli­cies, con­sumers have the power to in­flu­ence de­ci­sions through their choices; the more

peo­ple there are de­mand­ing sus­tain­able palm oil and the pro­tec­tion of vi­tal habi­tats, the harder those de­mands will be to ig­nore.

As is al­most al­ways the case when an is­sue af­fects both peo­ple and the en­vi­ron­ment, the de­bate over palm oil is in­cred­i­bly com­plex and must be han­dled care­fully, as ex­plained by Erik Mei­jaard, Chair of the IUCN Oil Palm Task Force.

“Much needs to be im­proved in the plan­ning and man­age­ment of oil palm, en­sur­ing that en­vi­ron­men­tal and so­cial im­pacts are much less than they were in the past. There are many ways of do­ing that, from cer­ti­fi­ca­tion to bet­ter gov­er­nance, but we be­lieve that a ban on palm oil is not the right way about it. Noth­ing is sim­ple about palm oil, and those who think they have a sim­ple an­swer are likely to be wrong in the greater scheme of things.”

One ap­proach that has been sug­gested by some re­searchers is work­ing more with small­hold­ers as op­posed to cer­ti­fied plan­ta­tions, with smaller har­vests prov­ing to be more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly than the larger, of­fi­cially ap­proved crops. If more palm oil were to be sourced from these grow­ers both the sur­round­ing habi­tat and the grow­ers them­selves would ben­e­fit, with less en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age and more money find­ing its way to those who need it most.

There is no course of ac­tion that will sat­isfy and pro­tect the needs of every per­son and an­i­mal in­volved, but a bal­ance must be found to en­sure the grow­ing de­mand for palm oil can be met with­out fur­ther dam­age to the en­vi­ron­ment and vul­ner­a­ble species. In order for this to hap­pen, palm oil plan­ta­tions must be in­cen­tivised and helped to move to­wards a more sus­tain­able fu­ture.

Palm oil has be­come the world’s most widely used vegetable oil and ac­counts for ten per cent of Malaysia’s ex­ports andfive per cent of In­done­sia’s

Huge ar­eas of for­est have been cleared for palm oil in the last few decades

right Now a huge in­dus­try, palm oil farm­ing pro­vides thou­sands of jobs

Sev­eral or­gan­i­sa­tions treat and re­lo­cate an­i­mals that find them­selves stuck in palm oil plan­ta­tions

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