Earth Day 2014 | The problem with palm oil

Buying ethically sourced products has become a part of everyday life for consumers wishing to minimise their impact on the environment. However, many of the products we don’t think twice about purchasing may actually contain one of the most harmful ingredients of all, palm oil. Sean Mowbray introduces the ubiquitous culprit and the measures being taken by both activists and industry to clean up its production.


Cargill's Problems With Palm Oil

The raw product: palm fruit being harvested in Sumatra, Indonesia. © Rainforest Action Network/Creative Commons

Palm oil has become one of the essential foodstuffs of the modern world. Often listed under the vague term ‘vegetable oil’ it can be difficult to find out whether a particular product actually contains palm oil. However, it is thought to be present in around 1 in 10 grocery items (including ice cream, breakfast cereals, ready meals, washing up liquids and cosmetic products) and to account for roughly one third of global vegetable oil usage, making it nearly impossible to avoid.

As one of the cheapest and high yielding oil crops, palm oil production has increased substantially since the 1960s. Today, the industry produces approximately 50 million tonnes of palm oil annually, but it is estimated that demand will have doubled by 2030, and tripled by 2050.

Palm oil is clearly an extremely important – even staple – commodity of the twenty-first century, and provides an essential source of income for nearly 4.5 million people in Indonesia and Malaysia alone, together responsible for 85% of global output. The problem is not the product itself, but the environmentally destructive methods involved in its production.

Palm field expansion infringes on diverse wilderness environments, such as primary rainforest and peat land. The deforestation and wetland drainage required to prepare this land for sowing cause a mass release of stored carbon dioxide, making the industry a considerable driver of climate change. According to a Greenpeace report, Indonesia may be accountable for up to 4% of greenhouse gas emissions released each year.

Conversion of rainforests to palm oil plantations has already impacted upon the quality of life of South-East Asians, having been linked to an average temperature increase of 7.1% in the Sumatra region of Indonesia between 1988 and 2010. This has contributed to a rise in the number of malaria cases, increased crop failure and lower crop yields. Meanwhile palm production is often underpinned by low wages, poor treatment of workers and even child labour.


A peat bog drained to make way for plantation land in Indonesia. © Wakx/Creative Commons

The loss of natural habitat also threatens the survival of keystone species such as the Sumatran orangutan, which has suffered an 80% decline in its population over the past 75 years and is considered by the IUCN Red List to be critically endangered. Tiger and Asian elephant populations are also under pressure from palm oil expansion.

So, what is being done to tackle the palm oil problem?

Efforts to encourage sustainable palm oil use have been led by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), comprising over 1000 member organisations including palm oil producers, traders, environmental NGOs and multinational companies. Through its certification process, RSPO sets the current standard for sustainability in palm oil production. However, membership is voluntary; currently only around 16% of palm oil produced globally is certified as sustainable by the RSPO.

Inevitably, the certification process is rife with problems. For instance, there is a lack of transparency around the exact sourcing methods of certified palm oil, meaning that ‘it is possible for plantations to be labelled “sustainable” yet still be driving deforestation’, according to a recently published report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). This creates a knock-on effect down the supply chain, so that retailers may be using palm oil branded as sustainable when in fact it is very far from it. The need has therefore arisen for new industry standards that include a commitment to halting deforestation to make way for new palm plantations.

Snacktivism in San Francisco CA

Grass roots activism, as seen in this San Francisco supermarket campaign by Rainforest Action Network, can and does make a difference. © Rainforest Action Network/Creative Commons

Momentum has already been building for such a standard. Already 50% of globally traded palm oil is covered by a pledge from two of the largest traders, Willmar and Golden Agri-Resources, to source from deforestation-free producers. Retailers L’Oréal, Mondelēz, Nestlé, Reckitt Benckiser, and Unilever have been singled out by the UCS report for making strong commitments to this cause, while Kellogg’s, Mars, General Mills and Colgate-Palmolive have announced similar plans.  Most recently the cosmetics giant Proctor & Gamble has pledged to eliminate deforestation linked palm oil from its supply chain by 2020, after an extensive campaign led by Greenpeace.

Reform of the palm oil business is a top-down initiative. Traders and retailers are in a position to pressurise the producers into tidying up the supply chain, rooting out deforestation and improving transparency. These pledges are an important step forward but it is only the beginning. Until there is sufficient action, and not only words, the fight to clean up the palm oil industry and save the precious few remaining areas of rainforest will continue.

How can you help?  

Inform yourself – Unfortunately, as transparency is a major issue with palm oil production, finding reliable and up to date information on sustainable products is hard to come by. Useful sources include the Rainforest FoundationBetter Palm Oil (an RSPO affiliated website), Sustainable Palm Oil and UCS’s Donuts, Deodorant and Deforestation report, which scores companies on their commitments, to name a few.

Campaign and get involved – The success of the Greenpeace’s Proctor & Gamble campaign is a great example of how activism and public pressure on a global scale can sway decision-making by companies who are increasingly sensitive to consumer demands. Join the movement and demand deforestation-free palm oil from your supermarkets! There are also plenty of organisations devoted to the protection of endangered species such as the orangutan to alleviate the direct impact of deforestation and palm oil production.

Inform others  Raise the issue on Twitter, Facebook, email, carrier pigeon…Get your friends and family involved, and help spread the word about unsustainable palm oil!

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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