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
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