Palm Oil: to Boycott or not to Boycott?

What has your shopping trolley got to do with rainforests? Well, more than you might think. Next time you pick up a packet of biscuits or jar of chocolate spread, take a look at the ingredients. You’ll likely notice the words ‘palm oil’ somewhere on that list.

Palm oil has made its way into many of our packaged convenience foods. It’s in everything from crisps and instant noodles to ready meals and chocolate bars. It’s even in our trusty jars of peanut butter. And that’s before you’ve even started opening your bathroom cabinets. So, what is palm oil, and what could it have to do with some furry creatures on the other side of the world?

Orangutans at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Malaysia.

What is palm oil, and why do we use it?

Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world. In fact, it is present in around half of all supermarket products. In addition to this, 46% of the palm oil imported into the European Union is destined for biofuel. It is also increasingly being used in agriculture as a component of animal feed. So you can see how much palm oil is in demand.

This incredibly versatile oil has a lot of potential for good. It should be a fairly sustainable crop to grow. It takes a relatively small amount of land compared to other commonly used oils. Consider the difference between palm oil and sunflower oil for example. Oil palms yield a massive 5950 litres per hectare. However, the yield for sunflower oil is only 779 litres per hectare. For soybean oil, the yield falls even lower to 446 litres. It would take over 10 times the amount of land to produce the same amount of soybean oil as palm oil. In fact, palm oil is the most productive oil crop in the world.

Unfortunately, it is not as rosy as it sounds. There has been a systematic failure of palm oil producers to run oil palm plantations in a sustainable manner. The negative impact of this cannot be overstated.

What is the impact of palm oil plantations?

Around 24 million hectares of the Indonesian rainforest were destroyed between 1990 and 2015. That is an area almost the size of the UK! Deforestation on such a huge scale has both an environmental impact and a human cost.

Biodiversity is being wiped out. Huge areas of ancient forests are being slashed and burned across South East Asia. Orangutans, tigers, elephants, rhinos, sun bears and more have become endangered because of this threat to their habitat. There are only two breeding populations of the Sumatran tiger left in the wild. The population of the Sumatran rhino has dropped to below 100. Heartbreakingly, the Chief Executive of International Animal Rescue, Alan Knight, has said that if the current rate of rainforest destruction continues, he has absolutely no hope that any orangutans will remain in the wild.

Large scale deforestation is not just a local issue either. It is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. Putting a halt to deforestation would be one of the quickest and cheapest ways of reducing greenhouse gases. This is why governments included action to tackle this issue in the 2015 Paris Agreement. One key problem is the ‘slash and burn’ technique used. The fires cause huge amounts of air pollution and can easily get out of control. In July 2015, huge fires swept across large areas of Indonesia. The haze produced was so thick that it closed schools and businesses across South East Asia. Millions of people breathed toxic smoke for months. It is estimated that 100,000 people died as a result of respiratory diseases as a result.

But what about the farmers and local people on the ground? Surely they benefit from the palm oil plantations? Well…no, not really. The industry has been linked to large scale human rights abuses. These include child labour, modern slavery and exposure to harsh chemicals without protection. Profits tend to go into the pockets of the large palm oil traders and plantation owners. There have been accounts of people’s land being stolen for plantations. This is a particular concern for vulnerable indigenous groups.

Oil palm at a plantation. Pixabay.

Is there such a thing as sustainable palm oil? Or should we be boycotting it entirely?

AA sustainable palm oil certification does exist. Unfortunately, it is rife with problems. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was set up to provide a standard for sustainable and ethical palm oil production. You may have seen the logo on products in the supermarket. Many Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), including the Sumatran Orangutan Society feel that these guidelines don’t go far enough. They need to be more strictly enforced. But the RSPO has many NGOs and other organisations as members who are striving to improve it from within.

In July 2015, the Wall Street Journal investigated one of Malaysia’s largest producers of palm oil. Felda Global Ventures (FGV) was found to be responsible for massive human rights abuses. Migrant workers claimed that they had been forced to work without pay, and had their passports confiscated. Workers often had to use hazardous chemicals without any protective equipment. FGV is also connected to large scale rainforest and peatland clearance. This is despite their own company policies to the contrary. Amazingly, FGV held onto their RSPO sustainable palm oil certificates for another 9 months after the publication of the investigation.

In March 2018, Greenpeace released a report into major brands who use palm oil in their products. The report is called Moment of Truth: Time for Brands to Come Clean about their Links to Forest Production for Palm Oil. They asked 16 brands to demonstrate their progress towards a clean palm oil supply chain. 8 of the companies were prepared to hold themselves accountable. These were Colgate-Palmolive, General Mills, Mars, Mondelēz, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble (P&G), Reckitt Benckiser and Unilever. The other 8 — Ferrero, Hershey, Kellogg’s, Kraft Heinz, Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo, PZ Cussons and Smucker’s refused to reveal their supply chain.

All 8 of the brands investigated were found to have received palm oil from producers involved in environmental and human rights abuses. According to Greenpeace, “neither governments nor the main industry body […] can currently be relied on to prevent producers from engaging in deforestation or clearing peatland.” Therefore, they argue, the brands must take responsibility for their own supply chains. When Greenpeace confronted these brands, they did take steps to remove these producers from their supply chains. But they should already have had reliable systems in place to detect these issues themselves. If brands are not upholding their own ‘no peat, no deforestation, no exploitation’ (NDPE) policies they are making us the consumer complicit in unethical large scale deforestation and human rights abuses.

The issue of dirty palm oil has been in the news with increasing frequency over the past 10 years. Many people have called for a boycott. This seems like a logical response. But it could end up causing more harm than good. Palm oil is the most productive oil crop in the world. If a boycott caused companies to switch to an alternative, even more land would need to be cleared. According to the Sumatran Orangutan Society, a boycott could run the risk of lowering the price of palm oil. The knock-on effect is that it would then become more attractive for biofuels and livestock feed. This would cause increased demands from these markets.

Millions of people in South East Asia rely on palm oil as their main source of income. Stopping palm oil cultivation altogether would have a hugely negative impact on the local communities and economies of palm oil producing countries. The focus must be on ensuring that palm oil is cultivated sustainably and ethically, and not at the expense of rainforests, wildlife and people.

Palm oil lurks in many foods, including crisps. Pixabay.

What can we actually do to help?

Because of the sheer amount of palm oil present in our everyday lives, there actually is huge potential for consumer power. We need to demand an end to unsustainable and dirty palm oil production, in order to safeguard the rainforests for generations to come. Calls for brands and companies to break their ties with unethical palm oil traders and producers are becoming louder.

In fact, all the conditions are in place to make sustainable palm oil an achievable goal. Most Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil passes through companies that have committed to protecting the environment and human rights. Now all that is needed is for these companies, producers and traders to work together and make their pledges a reality. The palm oil industry in South East Asia has the potential to set the benchmark for clean palm oil production, in order for emerging producers such as South America to follow suit.

Brands must be the driving force behind this. The can prove to consumers that they are committed to upholding their own pledges and NDPE policies. If brands continue to overlook breaches of human rights and illegal deforestation in their supply chains, then there is no incentive for the producers and traders of palm oil to clean up their act.

The Sumatran Orangutan Society calls on consumers to do their research. Learn which retailers and manufacturers are committed to removing deforestation from their products. We can also join social media campaigns and pressure governments. Greenpeace has a petition which you can sign to add your voice to the call. As well as Greenpeace and SOS there are many other organisations and NGOs that you can support. Rainforest Rescue, Rainforest Trust, Say No to Palm Oil and WWF are all working to stop dirty palm oil.

Dirty palm oil truly is a global issue. If palm oil related deforestation is halted, we have a chance to stabilise rising global temperatures. We could meet the Paris Agreement target. We have a chance to save orangutans and other critically endangered species. But the time for action is now.

Young Orangutan at Semenggoh Nature Reserve, Malaysia.