Palm oil, canceled?
Most of us are no strangers to massive, attention-grabbing headlines along the lines of “PALM OIL DRIVING ORANGUTANS TO EXTINCTION,” coupled with small but rising movements to boycott palm oil-based products, including widespread protests that led the EU to phase out palm oil from their biodiesel plan. But with palm oil being one of the most efficient oil crops in the history of human agriculture, will boycotting palm oil solve the problem of deforestation? We will see that despite the current destruction caused by unsustainable oil palm expansion and production practices, the efficiency of oil palm makes it an important part of the equation to a sustainable future.
“Moving on to this sustainable path, however, requires massive transformations to the way we produce, consume, and see palm oil today.”
This transformation cannot start without acknowledging our current challenges and the potential benefits of sustainable palm oil production.
Common practices currently used in palm oil production are extremely harmful to environmental and public health, with palm oil development accounting for “an estimated 36% of deforestation in Sumatra between 1985 and 2016, and 42% in Borneo between 1973 and 2015.” This poses significant threats to the wellbeing and survival of local wildlife and indigenous communities.
The cheap but highly destructive method of using open fires to clear forestland for plantation expansion (also known as “slash-and-burn”) is also a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, with the EU facing criticisms for having released even more greenhouse gases after increasing their reliance on palm oil as a source of biofuel to replace the notorious carbon-emitting fossil fuels. Notably, the use of the slash-and-burn method significantly contributes to the recurrent Southeast Asian haze, a public health threat that spans multiple Southeast Asian nations. The air pollution is so severe that it often forces essential activities like school and work to stop due to public health concerns, while also severely threatening the health of vulnerable communities and wildlife populations.
Considering these horrible outcomes of palm oil production, it is natural that many are seeking to boycott this seemingly wicked commodity. However, with palm oil currently being present in 50% of consumer products, it is likely that companies may transition to using other vegetable oils if they face significant public disapproval of palm oil. This poses huge threats to sustainability because palm oil is significantly more efficient than other oil crops, and transitioning to less efficient crops will require even more land and resources to produce the same amount of oil.
If we do not recognize that the issues with palm oil production come in the unsustainable production practices and not the type of oil itself, consumer demand may be misguided to bring even more damage to public and environmental health by supporting less efficient vegetable oils that are produced through similarly unsustainable practices. By recognizing the distinction between palm oil and the harmful methods currently used to produce it, we can focus on calling for better production practices in palm oil production, ultimately transforming this efficient crop from a threat into a tool for a sustainable future.
Many certification schemes exist to certify sustainable palm oil production, and the concept of certification certainly showcases a helpful method to help consumers identify and support sustainable palm oil.
“However, the genuine efficacy of these certification schemes is often questionable.”
For instance, the popular Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification has been shown by many scientists to promote no real improvements in sustainability standards in certified plantations, with prominent environmental advocates calling it “meaningless certifications” that “certify destruction.” These certifications are also associated with greenwashing, where huge corporations purchase certifications to attract eco-conscious consumers without truly improving their sustainability standards. In addition, despite being the most vulnerable and often least environmentally damaging suppliers of palm oil, small farmers often get left behind in prestigious but inaccessible certification schemes like this due to the lack of resources and information.
“So, what now?”
Palm oil holds the potential to be a highly beneficial oil crop due to its efficiency, but current production practices make it extremely harmful for the people and the environment. Certifications schemes exist to certify and incentivize more sustainable practices, but they have been shown to be ineffective and further enable greenwashing by large corporations, and often leave vulnerable communities behind. As with many other environmental issues that stem from systemic injustices, there sadly isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to our challenges with palm oil. And as a young, venturing environmentalist, I am still on my way to figuring out my position in this fight. However, one thing is clear: our challenge with palm oil is a complex and important one, and to find a truly sustainable solution to this challenge, it is important look long and far enough to avoid taking sides too hastily by falling for sensationalist news headlines and corporate greenwashing.
This article is inspired by Dr. Andrea DiGiorgio, who generously mentored me through the Princeton University Writing Seminar WRI116: Sustainable Futures, where we explored conversations surrounding palm oil and other important topics about sustainability.
- Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-eu-climatechange-palmoil/eu-to-phase-out-palm-oil-from-transport-fuel-by-2030-idUKKBN1JA21F?edition-redirect=uk
- WWF: https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/8-things-know-about-palm-oil#:~:text=Palm%20oil%20is%20an%20incredibly,to%20produce%20all%20vegetable%20oils.
- The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/17/hsbc-investigation-palm-oil-company-deforestation-allegations-noble-plantations
- China Dialogue: https://chinadialogue.net/en/nature/palm-oil-and-deforestation-today/#:~:text=Significant%20deforestation%20has%20been%20caused,Borneo%20between%201973%20and%202015
- The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/nov/11/indonesia-forest-fires-explained-haze-palm-oil-timber-burning
- The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/how-indonesias-election-puts-global-biodiversity-at-stake-with-an-impending-war-on-palm-oil-115468
- Mighty Earth: https://www.mightyearth.org/2016/09/27/massive-fires-on-palm-oil-concessions/
- ATTRA – Sustainable Agriculture Program: https://attra.ncat.org/what_information_can_you_give_me_on_crop_1/
- BBC: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200109-what-are-the-alternatives-to-palm-oil
- Rainforest Action Network: https://www.ran.org/the-understory/sustainable_palm_oil_child_labor/
- Mongabay: https://news.mongabay.com/2020/08/palm-oil-certification-sustainable-rspo-deforestation-habitat-study/
- Greenpeace: https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/sustainable-palm-oil-no-not-really/#:~:text=But%20does%20the%20RSPO%20actually,and%20peatland%20destruction%20is%20sustainable.
- SEnSOR programme: http://www.sensorproject.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Barriers-to-smallholder-RSPO-certification-Sep16_FINAL.pdf
- Mongabay: https://news.mongabay.com/2018/04/small-farmers-not-ready-as-indonesia-looks-to-impose-its-palm-oil-sustainability-standard-on-all/