What you need to know about palm oil

© Flavio Forner


It has all the makings of a supermarket tabloid headline: “The secret ingredient lurking in your pantry, freezer and medicine cabinet.” Although many consumers have never heard of palm oil, it’s an ingredient in about half the products on supermarket shelves. About 80 percent is used in processed foods, from ice cream to peanut butter to margarine; the rest goes into items like personal care and cleaning products or is used as biofuel.

This ubiquitous product has consistently been linked to the cutting and clearing of tropical forests, inspiring many organizations and individuals to call for a palm oil boycott. However, solving the problem is not that simple. Here’s what you need to know.

1.  Palm oil consumption is surging.

In recent decades, the global vegetable oil industry has skyrocketed as processed foods have become the norm in refrigerators and restaurants around the globe. In addition to this increasing demand, which has more than doubled in the last 10 years, growth of palm oil in particular has been fueled by factors ranging from the expansion of industrial logging in Indonesia (which cleared the way for new plantations of oil palm, the tree that produces palm oil) to government policies encouraging its expansion to bans on trans fats in the United States, Canada and parts of Europe (which led food companies to seek out alternatives).

The biggest consumers? India, Indonesia, China and the E.U. (Despite palm oil’s omnipresence, the United States only represents about 2 percent of the global palm oil market. However, given that many multinational corporations that use palm oil are based in the U.S., it’s an influential market.)

2.  Most of it is grown in Southeast Asia.

About 86 percent of the world’s palm oil is currently grown in Indonesia or Malaysia, where 4.5 million people earn their living from the industry. Millions more — as many as 25 million people in Indonesia alone — depend indirectly on the profits from palm oil production for their livelihoods.

As demand for palm oil grows, production is expanding in other tropical regions as well, particularly in South America and Africa.

3.  Palm oil production has led to major forest loss — which has greater consequences.

Of the 18 million hectares (44 million acres) that have been planted with oil palm worldwide — a territory the same size as Cambodia — an estimated 60 percent of this land was directly converted from primary forest. As the chart above shows, the amount of total forest cover lost between 1990 and 2010 in Indonesia alone is equivalent to a forest the size of Uganda.

The massive tree farms that result may look green from the air, but on the ground they’re only distantly related to the forests that once blanketed these lands. The burning and conversion of forests — and, even worse, carbon-rich peatlands whose soils store even more carbon than forests — to oil palm not only contributes to the greenhouse gas emissions fueling climate change, it also has more immediate impacts on the lives of nearby people and animals in the form of deadly air pollution and habitat loss for disappearing species such as orangutans, elephants, tigers and rhinos. Research has found that only a small fraction of forest biodiversity can survive after the land is converted to oil palm.

4.  But palm oil is the most efficient vegetable oil crop to grow

Oil palm cultivation produces more metric tons of oil per hectare than any other vegetable oil. The tree can grow on a range of soils, requires relatively little in terms of fertilizers and pesticides, and bears fruit year-round, making it an attractive crop for smallholders. Currently oil palm is grown on about 7 percent of land devoted to vegetable oil crops, yet palm oil makes up 39 percent of all vegetable oil production.

The crop’s efficiency underscores why boycotting all palm oil will not stop deforestation. If demand for all palm oil halted tomorrow, it would be replaced with demand for other vegetable oils, whose cultivation could actually increase the amount of land needed to produce the same amount of oil, destroying more forests and releasing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

5.  There is a growing demand for sustainable palm oil — and production is beginning to reflect that.

As the graph above shows, the amount of land being cultivated for sustainable palm oil has grown dramatically as businesses, producers and countries have become more aware of the toll of the industry’s destruction. Much of this change has been facilitated by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an international forum that aims to eventually transform the entire palm oil industry to one that leaves primary forests standing, avoids community conflict, minimizes land use and degradation and pursues sustainability throughout the entire supply chain.

Reforming the growth and sale of such a large commodity is no easy task, especially given how difficult it can be to trace original palm oil sources for large companies that source from many locations. And so far, the RSPO’s success has been limited, in part because achieving RSPO certification for palm oil supplies is currently voluntary, not compulsory. Yet in just over 10 years of existence, the RSPO has already certified 17 percent of palm oil currently on the market as “sustainable” according to its standards.

Ultimately, reforming this massive industry can’t be a task left solely to the RSPO. To help fill this gap, Conservation International is:

Supporting smallholder farmers with training and resources to increase palm oil yields and improve livelihoods.

Helping governments integrate sustainable palm oil production into land-use plans that include protection of important natural areas such as forest and peatland and promotion of sustainable coffee and other complementary crops

Providing guidance to companies such as Walmart and Agropalma (the largest palm oil producer in Brazil) on how they can meet or exceed RSPO standards.

The palm oil industry has a long way to go before it’s truly sustainable — but we are making progress.

Molly Bergen was the senior managing editor of Human Nature.

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