Passing up on palm oil: when, how and why to avoid it

Palm oil, along with soy, beef and timber, is one of the ‘big four’ agricultural commodities driving deforestation today. For this reason, the plant- native to West Africa and now cultivated in much of the tropical world- has come to be associated with something inherently bad, something that should be avoided at all costs. Its impacts on tropical rainforests are increasingly reported on in mainstream media, and a movement to ‘boycott palm oil’ is gaining momentum. However, whilst boycotting palm oil admirably chooses not to be part of the problems associated with its cultivation, it simultaneously refuses to be part of the solution.


‘The Big Four’ Infographic from Forest Trends Org.

For the past 3 months, I have been working and writing for an organisation called Proforest, who work with both the private and public sector in order to eliminate deforestation from supply chains around the globe. A significant part of this entails working in collaboration with the palm oil industry to improve their standards. When I began my work there, I was firmly opposed to the palm oil industry. I had grown up adoring Orangutans, often regarded as a flagship species of the threats to biodiversity posed by palm oil plantations in South East Asia. I had seen first hand the destruction wreaked by palm oil in Indonesia, and had read numerous articles detailing the heart-breaking impacts on wildlife, the environment, and communities in producer countries. I was one of the many who strived to avoid palm oil for environmental, animal welfare, or humantirian reasons.

However, in my passionate rejection of the palm oil industry and all that it stands for, I had yet to confront the reality of, if not palm oil, then what?

Palm oil is in about 50% of household products today, making it the world’s most edible oil. This is due to a combination of factors, including its high yield, its low demand for inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides, and its low demand for energy inputs. As a society, we are at a point now that our consumption levels are so high that eradicating palm oil altogether are completely unfeasible. Boycotting palm oil would mean one of two things, either:

  1. Consumption levels are radically reduced, or
  2. We find an alternative oil to replace palm oil

While I will not belittle efforts made to reduce consumption levels, the likelihood that as a species we will be able to reduce our consumption levels sufficiently to curtail deforestation fuelled by palm oil is slim. This is made ever the more sure by the fact that emerging economies such as China and India, coupled with a growing population globally, mean that consumption levels are only likely to increase in the next 50 years. In fact, demand for the oil is expected to double by the year 2050. So that’s option #1 out of the question. So what about finding an alternative to palm oil?


The Guardian website recently published an excellent interactive article exploring palm oil and its alternatives. The image above however, taken from this article, show just how beneficial it is as a crop when compared to soybean and rapeseed.


It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it

In light of this, pushing for stronger standards of palm oil seems to the most feasible approach to tackling the social and environmental problems that exist in the industry currently. As with almost everything, it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it. Although existing mechanisms, such as the RSPO certification system, still certainly have much room for improvement, they are undeniably making huge improvements in terms of best practice and sustainability in the palm oil industry,

It is also, however, a question of radically shifting our approach to food and other products. According to Rhett Butler, of environmental news website, “as long as we prioritise cheap food, palm oil is going to be in there because it is low-cost,”. A significant part of the solution therefore is therefore eating healthier, more nutritious food, sourced locally and ethically. It is about being critical of where our food comes from, and how it is made.

Tackling the problems of the palm oil industry has never been more important than it is today, with palm oil opening new frontiers in Africa and South America. Whilst this may seem overwhelming, the solution can be found in our own kitchens, and our own back yards. Eat more fresh produce, vegetables and fruit. Grow your own, if you can. And when you do buy products containing palm oil, make sure it is certified. If something you like contains uncertified palm oil- ask them why. And keep pushing for existing certification standards to improve.



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