Boycotting palm oil — is it worth it? does it work?
I think those are questions any of us who care about great apes and rainforest have asked ourselves. I certainly have struggled with finding the best personal ethical route to follow. And bottom-line is that it is simply not that easy to exist in developed consumer world without consuming palm oil in one of its myriad mystery forms, whether Palmitate A in dairy products or
I’m researching an article on palm oil, one which will also be the backbone of a chapter in the someday book I’m writing, and I thought the below was worth sharing. It comes from CDP Worldwide I share it because it unpassionately defines palm oil and begins to establish a few baseline facts for the For vs. Against sides in the palm oil boycott debate. I’m finding that all too often there is no palm oil discussion, rather a highly emotional attack by one group using images of orphaned baby orangutans and burnt deforested landscapes (yes, some of them mine) against another group showing mounds of lush oil palm nuts with glistening water droplets and nurseries of bright green-leafed seedlings.
Beyond the images and charts — oh so many charts — are the words. As journalist Martin Stevenson writes, “Language can be direct, deceitful or disingenuous. It can be used to reassure or rouse to action; to confuse, convince, cajole or con. It can be true, false or somewhere in between. When it comes to the palm oil debate, it is definitely somewhere in between.” Why so many words? A lot is at stake. I’m not talking about just the forest, wildlife and planet, but the money. The money at stake is huge. I don’t quite have a full accounting, but it is safe to say any number will be followed by the word billions. The money isn’t just the palm oil industry, the commercial conservation industry is deeply invested as well. While the numbers are the same they still account for millions of the billions. From the largest international NGOs like World Wildlife Fund, to the smallest save the orangutan group, your donations drive the campaigns.
Palm oil is the leading edible oil by production volume and is found in a wide variety of products used globally every day, including chocolate, soap and cosmetics. It is also an important cooking oil in many countries and is used in other industries including the livestock and meat sector, and, increasingly, biofuels. The success of palm oil as a global commodity lies in its tremendous versatility, and in its high yields and low production costs. This makes production of palm oil economical within the limited agricultural land available globally. Historically, however, the industry has brought more land into production rather than working to improve yields on existing estates.
If grown sustainably, palm oil has many advantages. It is highly productive compared to other major oilseed crops – best in class plantations can generate up to 10 times more oil per unit area than soybean, rape or sunflower. Its cultivation and processing require less fertilizer, pesticide and fuel energy per tonne of oil. Simple substitution with alternative crops could therefore have negative environmental and climate change impacts overall.
Palm oil also represents an economic opportunity for hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers, who represent a significant part of the supply chain, and offers some governments a means to combat poverty. For these reasons, penalizing palm oil expansion per se may not be feasible or economically responsible. Urgent effort should instead be focused on ensuring it comes from sustainable sources and minimizing deforestation risk.
The scale of the palm oil industry is vast. Global production of palm oil doubled between 1997 and 2008 and this demand was mainly met by Indonesia and Malaysia. Global palm oil output was over 50 million tonnes in 2011, almost all of it from Indonesia and Malaysia (51% and 36% respectively), which has helped to transform the economies of these countries. Palm oil production is also rapidly expanding into other areas of the world, including western and central Africa, Latin America and Papua New Guinea.
India and China are the largest importers of palm oil; in 2011/12 the two countries accounted for 35% of global imports, while 14% went to the EU-274.
Market demand for palm oil and its derivatives in Europe and the US has increased rapidly as food manufacturers seek alternatives to hydrogenated materials for health reasons. Palm oil is also used widely in processed foods, demand for which is growing steadily in increasingly affluent emerging markets. Growth in demand has also been prompted by expanding biofuel markets in the European Union and by demand for food in Indonesia, India and China.
Palm Oil as a Forest Risk Commodity
Cutting down or burning tropical rainforests to plant oil palm releases large quantities of stored carbon. A study by Achten et al (2011) estimated that the conversion of carbon-rich peatlands to oil palm plantations would require just over two centuries to pay off the carbon debt5.
Plantations grown on deforested land, and particularly on carbon-rich peatlands drained for agriculture, make palm oil production a major regional source of global emissions in Indonesia and Malaysia, where the majority of global production occurs. A study by Carlson et al. (2012) found that deforestation for development of oil palm plantations in Indonesian Borneo is becoming a globally significant source of CO2 emissions6.
Malaysia and Indonesia have good forest conservation laws and vast areas of forest under protection, but institutional weaknesses mean that even protected areas are vulnerable to land clearance. Many of Indonesia’s national parks have suffered deforestation for illegal logging and palm oil plantations and recent research has shown that oil palm plantations are increasingly responsible for deforestation in Indonesia.
Forest conversion has a major impact on biodiversity. Palm oil plantations have replaced the habitat of many endangered species, including primates such as the orang-utan.
Some oil palm plantations provide not only employment but also housing, water, electricity and infrastructure, including roads, medical care and schools. However, in the process of setting up the plantations, land inhabited by local populations is sometimes seized and livelihoods jeopardized by migrant labour. Palm oil, whilst an undoubted wealth creator and valuable foreign exchange earner, replaces diverse farming systems with export-oriented monocultures and incomes dependent on the fluctuations of the international market.
For additional thoughts on boycotting palm oil you might read Why I Won’t Be Boycotting Palm Oil.
Notes & Source
2015-2016 Global research and reporting on great apes made possible in part through the generous financial support of the Philadelphia Zoo