Stumbling upon an issue
For something that is contained within over half of the products we buy, it’s surprising that I barely knew anything about Palm Oil. To me, it was just a tenuous answer to a GCSE geography 1-mark question you never really gave much thought to, or a word you’d skim across whilst searching for the number of calories your strawberry and yoghurt Alpen breakfast cereal bar contained. Never would I assume it be the source of such global unrest.
I recently discovered that the UK supermarket powerhouses of Co-op, Waitrose, and Marks and Spencer only use sustainable Palm Oil in their own brand products. However, they actively choose not to advertise this. This to me seemed a great selling point. So, why hide it? Is there more to Palm Oil than I previously thought? Intrigued, I investigated further and stumbled upon a whole world of debate surround the product.
What is Palm Oil?
Palm Oil is essentially a vegetable oil, physically no different from your classic household cooking oils found in your kitchen, like rapeseed oil or sunflower oil for example. It’s in pretty much everything, bread, cheese, crisps, ice cream, cookies, chocolate, margarine, pizza, soap, detergent, lipstick, noodles, shampoo, the list goes on. You name it, chances are it has Palm Oil in it.
Why is Palm Oil so popular?
There are many properties and aspects to Palm Oil that makes it ideal for curtain products and attractive for producers, and I could keep you all day outlining them in detail. But the most important and key factor with Palm Oil is its efficiency in production. On average, 4 tons of Palm Oil can be produced from 1 hectare of land, whereas rapeseed oil, the second most efficient, can only supply 0.75 tons of oil per hectare. This is a shortfall of 3.25 tons!! Palm Oil over 500% more efficient over the same amount of land!
So why does it get such negative press?
So far Palm Oil seems pretty great. Its multifunctional and grows in abundance in such a small space. So whats the catch? Well firstly, plantations are restricted to regions along the equator, areas with humid enough climates to support the oil palm tree fruits from which Palm Oil is extracted. These areas are dominated by tropical rainforests abundant with wildlife and biodiversity, and home to rare and endangered species.
To farm Palm Oil effectively, space must be made and with its immense global popularity, that is ever increasing, Palm Oil production has been the cause of huge scale deforestation along the tropics. Approximately 8% of the world’s deforestation between 1990 and 2008 was to make room for Palm Oil plantations. Currently, more than 27 million hectares of land on the Earth’s surface is being used for Palm Oil farming. This is nearly the size of New Zealand!
Its largest producers are Malaysia and Indonesia with production increasing in parts of Africa and South America. In these areas, in order to clear land, biologically rich forests are bulldozed or torched with total disregard for what may be in the way. These methods not only destroy the local habitat but produce heavy amounts of carbon dioxide. So much so that some Palm Oil-based biofuels, popular with the more greener road user, ironically have 3x more climate impact than fossil fuels!
With all this tree chopping and lizard scorching comes some knock on affects too. Such is the enormity of this devastating deforestation some animals are finding themselves on the brink of extinction. Globally iconic and magnificent creatures like Orangutans, Borneo Elephants, and Sumatran Tigers are among these. But this disruption doesn’t stop at wildlife, people are affected too. Annually, hundreds of indigenous inhabitants are brutally driven from their homes to make way for farmland.
Is sustainable Palm Oil helping?
So far Palm Oil has taken us for a roller coaster ride. First, it seems like a miracle product, so diverse in its use and so efficient in its growth. But then so poorly managed that its causing devastating affects across the tropics. What’s being done to help?
In 2004 the WWF brought all parties involved with Palm Oil production together for talks to try and solve the multitude of issues surrounding its path into consumer goods. This resulted in the formation of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an organisation set up to certify sustainable Palm Oil farming with the aim to reduce the negatives around Palm Oil production. Like Fairtrade does with chocolate, only this time for Palm Oil.
To get certified, 8 RSPO principles and criteria must be followed. These stringent sustainability criteria relate to social, environmental, and economic good practise. They include:
- Commitment to transparency
- Compliance to applicable laws and regulations
- Commitment to long-term economic and financial viability
- Use of best practise by growers and millers
- Environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity
- Responsible consideration of employees, and of individuals and communities affected by growers and mills
- Responsible development of new planting
- Commitment to continuous improvement in key areas of activity
Qualified independent certifiers inspect each plantation to ensure they meet these standards. So far, 20% of Palm Oil plantations have been certified as sustainable. The WWF claim that this process has help conserve nearly 200,000 hectares of highly valuable land. With this, farmers and producers have become more respectful of the land in which they use. Seems positive so far.
So why aren’t supermarkets advertising the RSPO certified label?
The RSPO is not without its controversies. There have been many allegations from big environmental organisations and NGOs condemning the RSPO and its practises. Greenpeace accused the RSPO of taking “few meaningful steps to end the devastation and injustice linked to Palm Oil”. The International Union of Food (IUF) accused the RSPO of refusing to apply their own principles and criteria to some members.
With this backlash it’s understandable that supermarkets don’t want the RSPO certified label on their packaging. Combining this scepticism with the negativity surrounding Palm Oil in the first place, it’s clear why stores like Waitrose and M&S don’t want to stamp their packaging. They simply don’t want to remind their customers that Palm Oil is in their products in the first place!
But this doesn’t mean that sustainable Palm Oil is a bad thing. What the WWF is doing by gathering all these stakeholders is creating a synergy and a link between all parties. These are the first steps in solving this global environmental problem. But is it enough?
How can we make a change?
Palm Oil currently seems like too big an issue to tackle. Organisations and governments are failing to keep its production under control, environmentally motivated NGOs are struggling to structure sustainable solutions, and supermarkets are too scared to even face the issue. But hope is not lost. You at home can help.
1. Spread the word and educate others
Lack of awareness is the biggest issue surrounding consumers and Palm Oil. People are blissfully unaware of what their consumption is financially supporting, and this is because corporations are actively avoiding the issue. By not raising the issue it avoids the stigma towards their products. But, by spreading the word and educating others you eradicate the bad press of Palm Oil. Teaching others that Palm Oil in itself is a perfectly fine product, just poorly produced, creates a better image.
Bristol Zoo have set up tablets ready for visitors to send a direct email to either Co-op, Waitrose, or M&S exclaiming how they want them to advertise the fact they support sustainable Palm Oil. The aim of this is to get enough people to back the idea so the supermarkets listen. This will hopefully create a chain reaction in which all supermarkets will follow!
2. Increase demand for sustainable Palm Oil
It’s a hard fact that demand drives change. What we as consumers ask for we get, but we can’t make change individually. In order to get businesses to change we must collectively alter the way we shop through the choices we make. Back sustainable Palm Oil. Let’s face it, it’s going to be difficult to boycott Palm Oil altogether. You’ve seen how many products it’s in, and we’ve learnt it’s actually not a bad product in itself. Buy RSPO certified products over non-certified ones. Create that demand. This will increase demand in sustainable Palm Oil and businesses will start listening. Conglomerates will start labelling their products and the message will spread.
More and more products will choose the more eco-friendly option and the ball will start rolling. Any possible issues with certification methods will be ironed out and improve as popularity increases. It is key that businesses become transparent and lead the way with this. By creating demand collectively this can be achieved.
MSc Sustainability & Consultancy