What is palm oil?
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of palm trees. Oil palm trees are native to Africa but were brought to South-East Asia just over 100 years ago as an ornamental tree crop. Now, Indonesia and Malaysia make up over 85% of global supply but there are 42 other countries that also produce palm oil.
Nowadays palm oil is the most widely used oil and it’s cultivation increases with about 8 percent every year. This is not surprising, as palm oil is the most efficiently produced type of oil. Therefore, we can produce a huge amount of oil per hectare. It’s also very useful, as it can be used in all sorts of products such as food, cosmetics, biofuel and more. It’s even an ingredient in about half of all products in supermarkets.
What’s the problem?
Because palm oil is so useful, there is a huge demand for more palm oil. Unfortunately, the cultivation of new palm oil plantations has led to the destruction of big parts of rainforest, especially in Southeast Asia. This has caused a decrease in biodiversity and the suffering and death of many animals. The destruction of rainforest is also very bad for the environment, as often big parts of forest are set on fire, emitting huge amounts of CO2 into the air.
The growing number of palm oil plantations are also bad for humans. Often land is being stolen from the local population and this means people are forced to move or have difficulty growing enough food. Unfortunately, those are not the only human right violations by palm oil companies. According to research from Amnesty International, workers at palm oil plantations are regularly being exploited and human rights violations are common. Child labour, people working for less than minimum wage or working with dangerous chemicals and a lack of safety regulations are all very common in the palm oil industry.
What’s the solution?
The problems surrounding palm oil cultivation are pretty severe, so it’s only logical that many people want to do something about that. Therefore, some people have decided to boycott all products that contain palm oil. While this is quite a logical choice, unfortunately it doesn’t help to reduce deforestation of rain forests and human rights violations.
While it’s often said that palm oil is the problem, it isn’t really. The real problem is the huge demand for vegetable oils and the lack of free agricultural land. Consumers want lots of cheap products and to produce those, a lot of land is needed. When the majority of people begins to boycott palm oil, then it’s only a matter of time before producers are going to replace the palm oil in their products for another ingredient, as people will still want to buy these products (in most cases that would have to be another type of oil). That doesn’t solve the problem, because to make the replacement, land is also needed and therefore deforestation will still be necessary.
In fact, switching to other types of oil will require even more land and therefore more deforestation than the cultivation of palm oil, as palm oil is one of the most efficient and sustainable types of oil. From one hectare of oil palms, about 3,7 tonnes of palm oil can be made every year. For a hectare of sunflowers this is only 0,7 tonnes of sunflower oil. Therefore, if a palm oil boycott would force producers to switch to other oils and they would choose sunflower oil, this would require 5 times more land to make the same amount of oil. This would be really bad for the environment and would likely lead to more land being stolen.
Sustainable Palm Oil
As destructive as the oil palm is to the environment, it may be better than the alternatives. No other crop can yield even a third as much oil per acre planted. And along with using less land, the oil palm gobbles up significantly fewer pesticides and chemical fertilizers than coconut, corn or any other vegetable oil source.
Palm oil can be produced more sustainably, and things can change. The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil or RSPO was formed in 2004 in response to increasing concerns about the impacts palm oil was having on the environment and on society. The RSPO represents the largest, independent, third-party standard for the more sustainable production of palm oil. Certified palm oil protects the environment and the local communities who depend on it for their livelihoods, so that palm oil can continue to play a key role in food security. In November 2018 the RSPO standard was strengthened and it now represents an essential tool that can help companies achieve their commitments to palm oil that is free of deforestation, expansion on peat, exploitation and the use of fire.
The only real way to end deforestation is by limiting our ecological footprint, for example by consuming less, not buying unnecessary products and paying attention to the environmental costs of products (including the amount of land needed to make a product).
If we’d all consume less and use less land, there would be no need for deforestation. However, as the palm oil industry won’t die out, it remains important to encourage palm oil companies to work in a sustainable and human friendly way. This can be done by asking companies to implement stricter rules and conduct more inspections for sustainable palm oil certificates and asking producers to make environmentally friendly choices.