Palm oil is destroying tropical rainforests around the world, is driving the extinction of one of our closest relatives, the orangutan, and exacerbating climate change. So what can we do?
People often ask me whether they should try to avoid palm oil, or call for it to be banned, or whether such a thing as sustainable palm oil exists. Here I take a look at each of these options.
Is sustainable palm oil deforestation-free?
So-called ‘sustainable’ palm oil, certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) does not protect High Carbon Stock (HCS) forests (a proposal to include them is being discussed) only High Conservation Value (HCV) forests.
What’s the difference? Well, an HCS might be a big forest storing a lot of carbon in its trunks and roots, or in the peat soil the forest stands on. Whereas an HCV could be a lot smaller but with lots of critical wildlife or one that protects a key watershed. The trouble is, HCV alone has six sub-definition criteria that are complicated to assess on the ground and to implement. It’s easy for a big buyer to fall foul of these definitions, especially when palm oil traders hide behind proxy companies to do their dirty work.
In the face of this confusion, the chief executive of the UK supermarket chain, Iceland has banned palm oil from its own brand products. Given the questions over what source of palm oil is really sustainable, this seems a reasonable decision.
Going palm oil free
But going palm oil-free is as hard as going plastic-free. The product is everywhere and often ingredients have confusing labels. There are at least 200 different names for palm oil derivatives. So how can a consumer even identify them, let alone know if the palm oil used is sustainably sourced or not?
To make things worse, half of the sustainable palm oil produced gets mixed with other palm oil, because traders are not incentivised to buy it at a premium, and consumers are also reluctant to pay more. This means there are few market signals for producers striving to produce sustainably.
What about the alternatives
Soy, rapeseed, and sunflower all produce much less oil per hectare and use more inputs, so more land would be needed to grow them at scale.
In fact, soy already accounts for 60% of global vegetable oil. Like palm oil, it is tainted with deforestation, with the recent expansion of soy production coming at the expense of forests in the Chaco, Amazonia, and the Cerrado. Expanding production of other commodities to replace palm oil risks solving one problem by creating another.
We must raise standards
The reality is that today 80% of palm oil production is carried out with minimal environmental controls; this has to change — and fast. This must be done in a way that does not leave millions of poor farmers without a job.
In major markets such as India, China and Indonesia, low awareness means that consumer demand for improvements is limited. The latest Greenpeace campaign is hoping to address this by raising awareness in these markets.
With 40 million hectares of degraded land in both Indonesia and Brazil, there is plenty of land available on which farmers can grow these commodities, without eroding our remaining natural forests. But this land is often hard to access legally and in a socially responsible way.
The financial sector also needs to play its part by starving the worst offending companies of money through being more responsible over their loans or investments. Companies with no policy on palm oil or deforestation should come up ‘red’ in any portfolio scan — and the tools now exist to do this. So there is no excuse, the financial sector must act.
A bleak alternative
An International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report this July made clear that: “If oil palm expands into biophysically suitable areas, some 270 million hectares of biodiversity hotspots could be threatened, and 39%, 64%, and 54% respectively of all threatened amphibians, birds and mammals affected.”
However, when it comes to a choice, nature loses.
As consumers we hold the key to solving this problem. We must be prepared to challenge governments, industry and finance to demand that the palm oil sector changes.
The loss of orangutans is too high a price to pay.
What to do now? Sign Rang-Tan’s petition!