Known to some as ‘the world’s most hated crop,’ palm oil is estimated to be in half of consumer products. Its universal unpopularity is a bizarre paradox when compared to its ubiquity in the market of cosmetics and food.
A vegetable oil like rapeseed or sunflower oil, palm oil is harvested from the fruits of the palm tree, which is native to south-west African rainforests. Since the 19th century, however, palm plantations have sprung up in other parts of the world thanks to an unedifying combination of colonialism, ecologically-destructive capitalism and the transatlantic slave trade. Today, the biggest exporters of palm oil are found in south-east Asia; with Indonesia and Malaysia accounting for 53.5% and 30.1% of global exports respectively in 2021.
The public mood has been slowly shifting against palm oil since the mid-2010s, with public campaigns by the Worldwide Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) and ethical consumer organisations raising awareness of the dangers production poses to wildlife. A key moment in the UK was when supermarket Iceland ran a Christmas advert in 2018, highlighting the dangers palm oil poses to wildlife. The advert, narrated by actress Emma Thompson, was originally made by Greenpeace and showed an animation of an orangutan telling a little girl the story of his home being destroyed for palm oil plantations.
Ultimately the ad was banned from being broadcast due to rules on political advertising, however thanks to the internet it became a viral sensation.
What Exactly is The Problem With Palm Oil?
While palm oil is a good natural preservative and requires less pesticides than other crops like coconut oil, it comes with a big environmental price tag in the form of deforestation. It is estimated that globally palm oil farming caused 8% of deforestation between 1990 – 2008, with Indonesia alone losing 16% of its tree cover between 2001 and 2018.
Forests are burned to clear them for plantation, a process which releases carbon into the atmosphere even before factoring in the loss of carbon-sequestering trees. While you may be thinking that the palm trees make up the loss of sequestration, the truth is the critical ecosystems that the palms replace often have far higher carbon-sequestering ability. This is true of the tropical peat swamp forests often cleared in Malaysia and Indonesia. The damage to rainforest also causes loss of habitat for key species (Indonesia alone is home to 10% of the world’s animal and plant species) and is thought to have damaged populations of orangutans, rhinos, elephants and tigers among others.
Added to this is the poor working conditions and exploitation of palm oil plantation workers. An investigation by Amnesty International found child labour, forced labour, exposure to toxic chemicals and unsafe conditions on plantations in Indonesia. Palm oil farming in Indonesia has also endangered the land rights and livelihoods of indigenous groups. Groups like the Orang Rimba and Iban Dayak have lost the lush forests they once foraged in and now struggle to survive.
What Has Been Done To Combat The Problems with Palm Oil?
Supermarket Iceland banned palm oil from all its products after it ran its Christmas ad in 2018. High-profile ethical cosmetics company Lush has made similar moves. However, eradicating palm oil completely is both unrealistic and, according to the international Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), undesirable as it may be replaced by worse alternatives.
Small steps have been made such as the EU ban on palm oil as a biofuel, a piece of legislation which the Indonesian and Malaysian governments are currently challenging. There is also the Amsterdam Commitment, a non-legally binding accord signed by businesses which aims to remove unsustainable palm oil from the EU supply chain. This commitment is part of a wider move against deforestation-causing products such as cocoa and rubber, and while the movement itself is positive, its results are so far inconclusive. Closer to home in the UK, the 2021 Environment Bill introduced legislation to reduce deforestation-connected products, by mandating that businesses must use products which are grown in line with local laws to protect ecosystems.
A big move towards curing the evils of palm oil comes in the form of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Set up by the WWF in 2002, members of the RSPO include every level of the palm oil supply chain, as well as non-govermental organisations (NGOs). It comprises half of global actors in palm oil production. RSPO is dedicated to breaking the link between palm oil and deforestation through its high certification standards, which tackle not only environmental but social problems associated with palm oil. These include: fair working conditions, protecting indigenous land rights, stopping the clearing of primary forest, protecting wildlife, and monitoring and reducing pollution including greenhouse gases. So far RSPO has conserved the equivalent of 250,000 football pitches of forest but only certifies 20% of palm oil; there’s a long way to go.
Finally, perhaps the biggest development in recent years against palm-oil related deforestation is the agreement, signed at COP26, to halt deforestation by 2030. Signatories to this agreement included Indonesia, a big moment for campaigners against deforestation.
What Still Needs to be Done?
As with so many things, for palm oil the devil is in the detail. Most legislation for reducing the negative environmental effects of palm oil is part of wider efforts to curb deforestation more generally, and these are contingent on political developments in nations where deforestation most occurs.
For example, both Brazil and Indonesia are signatories to the COP26 deforestation pledge, but they may fail to meet – or renege on all together – their commitments depending on who is in power. Meanwhile, the UK government’s Environment Bill is only as good as laws on the ground to protect resources and communities.
As far as sustainable palm oil goes, it has taken 20 years for one-fifth of the world’s supply to be certified by RSPO and clearly this needs to be improved. It can only be hoped that all these disparate elements begin to work together to reduce the blight of palm oil-related deforestation.
Do you make an effort to buy sustainable palm oil? Or do you try to avoid it altogether? Let us know in the comments!