Most people have heard of palm oil and know it has a negative impact on the environment.  However, even when people want to make good informed choices, there is often confusion around the options. These include whether to avoid palm oil altogether and choose alternative oils and whether to choose palm oil that has a lower impact on the environment and how to do this.

Oil palm kernels

What is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is derived from the oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis) which originated in Africa. It grows across the tropics and needs rainfall and high humidity to thrive and has been used to make oil for thousands of years. Oil palm is grown in some 43 countries with 85% of all palm oil coming from Indonesia and Malaysia.

Palm oil is a globally important crop. According to the IUCN*, 18.7 million hectares of industrial-scale oil palm and several million hectares of smallholder produced palms.

Why is it a problem?

There is a huge and growing global demand for vegetable oils caused by shifting diets, increasing global wealth and urbanization. As a result, records show that 40% of demand for palm oil comes from India, China and Indonesia.  In 1980, the world produced four-and-a-half million tonnes of palm oil. Now the world produced nearly 70 million tonnes and by 2050, it is expected to quadruple again reaching 240m tonnes.** 

  • Palm oil has many advantages to manufacturers and consumers and in some sense is the perfect oil.
  • Palm oil is the highest-yielding vegetable oil crop, which makes it very efficient.
  • It needs less than half the land required by other crops to produce the same amount of oil.
  • This makes palm oil the cheapest vegetable oil in the world.
  • It has great properties for foods; it doesn’t smell, cooks easily, has a smooth texture and is a natural preservative.
  • Palm oil can be found in about half of all packaged foods, cleaning products, soaps, cosmetics and fuel for cars and power plants.

Oil palm plantation in South Sumatra

Producers of palm oil have come under scrutiny as huge swathes of primary forests have been cleared for both industrial-scale plantations and small holdings. In some areas this deforestation also displaced local communities, and, in some plantations, worker’s rights have been ignored. It is this deforestation in Sumatra and Malaysia that is threatening tiger habitat at an alarming rate. The drainage of peat swamps in Sumatra for plantations has an impact on greenhouse gas emissions, as large amounts of carbon dioxide are released in the process.

Many growers burn their land to clear it resulting in the dangerous smoke haze regularly reported in the media. The fires, especially on peat, produce a considerable amount of smoke and toxic compounds which have a negative impacts on people and wildlife.

Sustainable Palm Oil

In response to the destructive force of palm oil production and with pressure from concerned consumers, NGOs and conservation scientists, a growing number in the palm oil industry have committed to adopting more wildlife-friendly practices. Certification schemes have developed to identify these products.  One of the more well known is the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), established 2004 to promote best practice, environmental responsibility and engage stakeholders such as mills and manufacturers.

For producers working in High Conservation Value (HCV) landscapes, much can be done to conserve biodiversity. A key requirement for producers wanting certification is mitigating adverse impacts on HCV species and habitats.  Certification in Indonesia, requires plantings since 2005 having not replaced primary forest, introducing buffer zones and wildlife corridors and specific species protection methods. In doing so, these allow better access to ground cover, food and unpolluted water.  Certification also requires producers to have transparent supply chains, to mitigate carbon emissions, to limit planting on peatlands and to respect worker’s rights.

In 2017, around 19–20% of all global palm oil production was certified by the RSPO.* 

Certification however, is not without its problems and its critics. Standards for sustainability certification are constantly developing but it is complex and issues include how HCV land is identified, accurate tracing of supply chains, monitoring, reporting and the verifying of corporate commitments remains inconsistent. Corporate commitments to transitioning to certified products have to be backed up by action.

Government policy

It’s not just certification that can push this industry towards better stewardship of the tropical landscape. In 2011, Indonesia implemented both a deforestation moratorium and a national mandatory certification scheme. In Malaysia, the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) system introduced in 2012 aims for all producers within the country to comply with the federal and state laws. Nevertheless, compliance to these schemes is not always thoroughly policed.

With the demand for vegetable oil continuing to grow and the high yields and wide range of uses that palm oil affords, oil palm plantations are not going to disappear. Palms grown in wildlife and community-friendly methods, complete avoidance of deforestation of High Conservation Value land and rigorous surveillance and monitoring of land use and supply chains are going to be hugely important.

Pressure from consumers on manufacturers will in turn push producers to improve practices. However, with most palm oil being supplied to India, China, and Indonesia, important work on consumer awareness in these countries needs to happen.

FACTS

  • Indonesia and Malaysia are both tiger habitats and are core palm oil growing, processing, and trading country, as well as large consumers of palm oil.
  • 85% of the world’s palm oil is produced by Indonesia and Malaysia.
  • In 2017, it is estimated that only a fifth of global palm oil was certified, of which only half was sold as certified.
  • In 2016, 75% of the total palm oil imports to the UK were sustainable.
  • Total US domestic consumption of palm oil is currently only 1 million tonnes, which represents only 2% of global use and only about 8% of total domestic vegetable oil consumption.***
What can you do?
  • Support companies that have made commitments to only use certified sustainable palm oil.
  • Ask retailers to source certified sustainable palm oil, not only in their own-brand products but in all the products they sell. You can do this by contacting their customer service departments.
  • Ask manufacturers to source certified sustainable palm oil.
  • Look for the RSPO logo on the products that you buy.
  • Lobby your parliamentary or government representative to improve national legislation.
  • Join consumer awareness groups.
  • Join or support organisations that are actively campaigning for better standards.
  • Increase your own awareness of what is in your food.
References:

* Meijaard, E., Garcia-Ulloa, J., Sheil, D., Wich, S.A., Carlson, K.M., Juffe-Bignoli, D., and Brooks, T.M.(eds.) (2018). Oil palm and biodiversity. A situation analysis by the IUCN Oil Palm Task Force. IUCN Oil Palm Task Force Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. xiii + 116pp.

**The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/feb/19/palm-oil-ingredient-biscuits-shampoo-environmental

*** SPOTT https://www.spott.org/palm-oil-resource-archive/americas/

Resources:

Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)

UK Government’s statement on Palm oil

SPOTT – Sustainability Policy Transparency Toolkit  (A free, online platform supporting sustainable commodity production and trade for companies. By tracking transparency, SPOTT incentivises the implementation of corporate best practice)

 Giki   (UK sustainability app, where you use a smartphone to scan a barcode and can see the palm oil content)

Guardian Environment news: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/palm-oil

Greenpeace: https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/challenges/palm-oil/

Research finds that sustainable palm oil is best for biodiversity: https://www.openaccessgovernment.org/sustainable-palm-oil/72072/

Chester Zoo palm oil campaign: https://www.chesterzoo.org/what-you-can-do/campaigns/sustainable-palm-oil/

Chester Zoo uk palm oil shopping list: https://www.chesterzoo.org/app/uploads/sites/5/2019/10/Chester_Zoo_Sustainable_Palm_Oil_Shopping_List_v5_Oct_2019.pdf

Cheyanne Mountain Zoo Palm oil campaign: http://www.cmzoo.org/index.php/conservation-matters/palm-oil-crisis/

Zoos Victoria Palm oil campaign https://www.zoo.org.au/dont-palm-us-off/

WWF resources: https://wwf.panda.org/our_work/food/sustainable_production/palm_oil/responsible_purchasing/