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Why a boycott on palm oil is not that simple

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil made from the fruit of an African oil palm tree, Elaeis Guineensis. It comes from West Africa but was brought to Southeast Asia in the 1960s.

Today, about 85% of all globally and exported palm oil comes from Malaysia and Indonesia, two tropical countries with large areas of rainforest home to tigers, orangutans and other species that are found nowhere else on Earth.

Because it is so cheap and versatile, it is the most widely produced oil in the world, accounting for 35% of the world’s vegetable oil production. The industry was valued at £48 billion in 2016 and produces 70 million tonnes of palm oil each year – 80% of which is causing catastrophic ecological damage.

Palm oil is used in half of all consumer products, from cleaning products and shampoos to candles and toothpaste. But most palm oil consumed is found in food, everything from cooking oil to ice cream.

Millions of tonnes of the oil are also fuelling transport. In fact, more than 50% of palm oil coming into Europe (excluding the UK) is for biofuel. And the pulp left after the oil has been extracted from the kernel is also formed into ‘palm kernel cake’ which is used as feed for livestock.

 

Photo by Nanang Sujana/CIFOR

Why is palm oil so bad?

Palm oil, after cattle ranching and subsistence agriculture, is a leading cause of deforestation. Between 2005 and 2015, Borneo destroyed half of its jungle for palm oil production. In the last two decades alone, 3.5 million hectares of Indonesian and Malaysian forests have been cleared to make way for palm oil crops. Indonesia is now responsible for the third highest level of greenhouse gas emissions in the world as a result of deforestation for palm oil.

The problem is that palm oil trees grow best on land that hasn’t been used for agriculture before. And the easiest way to clear these ancient and biodiverse sanctuaries is to burn them. To make matters worse, these forests sit on top of peat bogs which store more CO2 than any other ecosystem in the world. When they’re burned, that CO2 gets released into the atmosphere.

 

Palm oil plantations in East Kalimantan – the Indonesian part of the island Borneo. Photo by Copernicus Sentinel data (2019), processed by ESA,CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

 

And it doesn’t stop there. Once a palm oil plantation is established, it continues to harm the environment as the chemical pesticides and fertilisers used pollute local rivers and poison people and animals.

According to the IUCN Red List of species at risk, the industry is critically affecting at least 193 threatened species, including the Sumatran rhino and pygmy elephant.

But the species that’s been most linked to this devastation is the orangutan, which – if things carry on as expected – will be extinct within a few decades.

In the last 10 years, the orangutan population has dropped by 50% and has lost 90% of their primary tropical rainforest habitat. All the while, the land used for palm oil plantations has doubled.

When orangutans have nowhere to go, with no source of food, they inevitably starve to death or wander into palm oil plantations, only to be killed by plantation workers who often view them as pests. It is estimated that between 1,000 and 5,000 orangutans are killed every year through palm oil development.

As their natural habitat diminishes, orangutans become more vulnerable to poachers, who kill orangutan mothers in order to capture their infants who are kept as pets or are smuggled to be sold in the illegal wildlife trade. Orangutan infants should remain with their mothers until they are ten years old.

Palm oil development has brought economic opportunities to some local people. But for the most part, the loss of access to the forests’ once rich resources, such as plants for traditional medicine, is not compensated. Moreover to establish the plantations, lands, and therefore livelihoods, are often seized from Indigenous people, who are still not sufficiently represented at government. Palm oil producers also can offer poor working conditions, child labour and long hours.

So, should I boycott palm oil?

In short, not necessarily. A simple shift from palm oil to other oils is not a solution as it may lead to further biodiversity loss.

According to an IUCN report, palm oil produces 35% of the world’s vegetable oil on under 10% of the land allocated to oil crops. So if we banned or boycotted it, more land hungry oils like soy, sunflower and rapeseed, would take its place. This is really important as global demand for vegetable oils is estimated to grow from an annual 165 million tonnes now to 310 million tonnes in 2050.

If you must buy products containing palm oil, make sure they have been certified as sustainable. But if you’re concerned about deforestation, it’s worth taking a step back and assessing the impact of other things you consume. For example, cattle ranching is responsible for 80% of deforestation across the Amazon and 65% of the world’s total deforestation.

If you do, however, want to avoid palm oil all together (or until its 100% traceable and deforestation-free) here are some palm oil free labels to look out for:

 

What is sustainable palm oil and is it better?

In 2004, the palm oil industry set up the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). If companies meet a set of criteria which aims to minimise negative impacts that palm oil cultivation has on the environment and nearby communities, they can claim their palm oil is “sustainable”.

But it took 14 years for the RSPO to ban deforestation – which it finally did in 2018 – and it still hasn’t enforced this new rule. According to Greenpeace, this means RSPO members may be destroying forests and getting away with it. In addition, most palm oil plantations in Indonesia are grown on land that was once originally primary rainforest, so it’s most likely that not even an RSPO labelled product is 100% sustainable.

The RPSO is also dominated by the industry itself; a tiny minority of members come from conservation or social-development groups. So it desperately needs a restructure to address this bias.

In addition, because of the industry’s huge and complex supply chain, it’s difficult to monitor and trace. This means loopholes exist, such as cutting down an old-growth tropical forest for paper and pulp and then starting a non-certified palm oil plantation before transforming it into a certified one.

While a growing number of companies have since signed up, 80% of all palm oil traded globally is still implicit in ecological destruction. However, while RPSO labelled food is not perfect, it’s the best bet for now.

How can I tell if a product contains palm oil?

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to tell if a product contains palm oil as it is often disguised as ‘vegetable oil’ and can be listed as hundreds of different names. For instance, in Australia and New Zealand, there are only three vegetable oils – peanut, sesame and soybean – that must legally be labelled due to the increasing incidence of food allergies. All other vegetable oils – including palm – can be labelled as ‘vegetable oil’.

 

Photo by Nanang Sujana/CIFOR

Take Action

  • Choose products that contain clearly labelled oils such as 100% sunflower oil, corn oil, olive oil, coconut oil or canola oil. Or if you want it more clear cut, look out for official palm oil free labels (above).
  • Avoid ingredients with the word palm in it including palmitate, palmitoyl, palm kernel, palmitoleic, or simply palm. Note: Palm sugar is not associated with palm oil. It is manufactured and harvested in a completely different way, so using palm sugar is okay.
  • Buy organic and fair trade products whenever possible to ensure that a minimum amount of damage has been made. By supporting these labels you’re also investing in sustainability programs that put in place strict criteria and regulations on working towards the goal of deforestation-free palm oil.
  • Ecosia it! If you’re unsure type in the product in question into this search engine, alongside the words ‘palm oil’, and often you can find the answer.
  • If you must buy a product containing palm oil, make sure it is certified sustainable palm oil, which has the RPSO logo.

To discover more about how your actions can be part of the solution, explore the icons below:

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