High-yielding and easy to grow, palm oil has become the most widely used vegetable oil in the world. In developed countries, it’s found in up to 50% of household products – these include packaged and processed foods, toiletries, cleaning products and cosmetics.
In recent years, palm oil has become a very controversial topic. Most people are now aware of the related environmental issues, which include the destruction of vast swathes of rainforest for palm oil plantations and the consequent habitat destruction of creatures like the orang-utan and Sumatran tiger. In addition, the burning of these forests releases large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, as does draining peat lands for plantations. This has made Indonesia, which is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, the third-greatest emitter of greenhouse gases after the USA and China.
The rights of indigenous people who live in the rainforest are also infringed upon due to the production of palm oil. Since they have no legal rights to the land they inhabit, it can simply be taken from them by the palm oil industry.
As a result, many people now boycott palm oil. In the vegan community, some hold the view that palm oil, despite being plant-based, can’t be considered vegan because of the animals harmed by deforestation.
As a result of this controversy, many companies now state that they use sustainable palm oil which doesn’t contribute towards rainforest destruction. But is this genuinely friendlier towards animals and the planet, or is it just another form of greenwashing?
First, let’s look at what ‘sustainable’ actually means. The main certification standard is that of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). To be certified, growers must abide by certain principles relating to the environment, consideration of employees and development of new plantations. 18% of palm oil is now RSPO-certified.
Many, including Greenpeace, have criticised this standard for not going far enough to prevent deforestation. Most concerningly, it doesn’t forbid putting palm oil plantations on peatlands and cleared secondary forests. Although some RSPO-certified growers go over and above the minimum requirements for certification, groups such as the Center for Orangutan Protection claim that others are still destroying forest which is home to endangered species.
The RSPO’s progress has been criticised for being far too slow. Companies have been accused of joining it to give the illusion of sustainability whilst making little effort to change their suppliers’ practices. The RSPO is a multi-stakeholder organisation, and the difficulty of getting all stakeholders to agree is thought to be hindering its progress. This problem is exacerbated by the diversity of the stakeholders – they range from farmers and non-profit organisations to corporations and governments.
There’s concern that demand for sustainable palm oil is coming almost exclusively from developed countries, which account for a very small fraction of the market. Much of the demand for palm oil comes from Asia, where consumers aren’t yet concerned about sustainability. Even WWF, one of the RSPO’s founders, admits that a worldwide shift towards sustainability won’t happen until major Chinese and Indian corporations make the switch to sustainable palm oil.
Many point out that oil palm is an exceptionally high-yielding crop which can produce up to ten times more oil per hectare than the next-best alternatives. If palm oil was replaced with another kind of vegetable oil, even more land would be needed to produce the same amount of oil. This could potentially lead to yet more deforestation.
Considering the vast areas of rainforest that have already been destroyed to grow crops like corn and soya (mainly for livestock feed), this is an alarming prospect. Many argue that we should thus buy products containing certified sustainable palm oil rather than boycotting it altogether, especially as so many small farmers are reliant on it for income.
Some believe that it will be impossible to sustainably meet growing demand for palm oil unless yields are increased even further on existing plantations. Currently, it’s easier for producers to expand their plantations than to increase their yields. It’s been proposed that this problem should be tackled by paying landowners to keep rainforest intact.
I have to wonder whether it’s necessary for us to be using such vast quantities of vegetable oils in the first place. Much of the demand is driven by the consumption of cheap processed foods, and it’s much easier to avoid palm oil (and other oils) if we base our diets on whole foods rather than packaged ones.
Cutting out most toiletries and cosmetics would further reduce the number of products we buy which contain palm oil. Perhaps a change of lifestyle is what’s needed, but it seems pretty unlikely that enough people will do this to make a difference. 2014 figures showed that the use of palm oil was set to double by 2020.
Palm oil isn’t inherently problematic – the issue lies with the way we’re currently growing it. But can demand be met without hurting the environment? There’s no doubt that this is a very complex issue, and it’s impossible to definitively answer the question one way or the other. It’s pretty clear that we as consumers should avoid products containing unsustainable palm oil, but whether we should also avoid certified sustainable palm oil is debatable. I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this, so please do leave them below.