Why Palm Oil Won’t Ruin the Earth

Alexis Bondy
Jul 24, 2020 · 7 min read
Two jars of no palm oil peanut butter in front of a white background
Image Credit: Be Kind Magazine

For the better part of 2019, thousands of wildfires raged in the Brazilian Amazon and Indonesian rainforests. In their destruction, the fires left behind millions of acres deforested and covered in thick ash. Not long after the media picked up the story, palm oil plantations were scapegoated as the main, if not sole, contributing factors to these wildfires. Many on social media called for immediate mass boycotts of palm oil. This simple solution to a complex issue will cause more harm than good.

In the dense underbrush of The Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra, one of the rarest and smallest of tigers stalks his prey. The Sumatran Tiger with his distinctive coloration and banding — dark, thick stripes melt into spots towards the hind legs over fiery orange fur — has to stray further and deeper into the forests of his homeland. But, it isn’t to avoid poachers. It’s to avoid the environmental impact of man’s stubbornness, comfort, misinformation, and greed. Each year, due to deforestation and human encroachment, the dwindling populations of not only the Sumatran tiger but of all the 780 species of mammals and birds (21 of whom are endemic to the region) who call The Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra home are forced further and deeper into the tropical rainforests.

Between 1990 and 2010 alone, a third of Sumatra’s rain forests were lost due to deforestation. The effect this has had on the region’s wildlife is extreme. In the last three decades, the Sumatran tiger’s numbers have nosedived to fewer than four hundred. The population of the Sumatran rhinoceros has seen a similar reduction — in the past two decades, there has been a 70% decrease in their population. All of this, in addition to further threat to the region’s great biodiversity, which includes 10,000 plant species (17 endemic), has led to UNESCO’s 2004 declaration of The Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra as a World Heritage Site which offers more protection. In the sixteen years since UNESCO’s initial rating, the Tropical Rainforest Heritage has been upgraded to ‘endangered’ status and later ‘critically endangered’. Despite ongoing conservation efforts including moratoriums on poaching and illegal logging, The Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra still faces massive deforestation, environmental encroachment, ecological instability, and growing numbers of critically endangered species.

Investigations into the cause of the 2019 wildfires that endangered Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, and claimed 2.12 million acres determined that the main contributing factor was the thousands of localized, controlled fires that were started to clear land during the production of palm oil. Similarly, the main contributing factor to the Amazon rainforest wildfires was massive deforestation in connection with slash-and-burn methods used to clear land for meat farms, and soybean and oil palm plants.

Since the explosion of the palm oil market in the 1980s, Malaysia and Indonesia have been the titans of the industry with 85% of total palm oil production coming from the region. Oil palm, the plant, thrives in tropical environments such as the rainforests of SouthEast Asia, and — as Brazil would decide in the late 1990’s — the Brazilian Amazon. Between 2004 and 2010, Brazil began to double oil palm groves, and in 2017, the Brazilian agricultural department announced their intention to further increase palm oil production to better compete against SouthEast Asian Indonesian manufacturers. A satellite study conducted by researchers at Duke University and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) concluded that between 1989 and 2013, Brazil has been converting tropical forests to oil palm plantations at concerning rates making it one of the fastest developing regions joining the palm oil market.

With two of the biggest ecological disasters of 2019 having such a strong connection to the deforestation caused by palm oil, the conclusion that palm oil is bad and should therefore be avoided doesn’t seem to be a stretch. After all, the conversion of land to palm oil plantations is devastating to the environment for more reasons than just deforestation. The process of clearing land for oil palm uses controlled peat fires. While deforestation for oil palm accounts for 8% of total land loss for agriculture (or, 2.3% of deforestation globally), the use of the highly flammable, carbon-rich dried peat releases 100 times the amount of greenhouse gases than conventional forest fires, easily spreads to unintended lands, and accounts for 1/3 of the greenhouse gases released annually. Deforestation from this specifically threatens 3.8 species per million metric tons of oil produced. With the 71.48 million metric tons of palm oil produced annually, nearly 300 species are put at risk.

So, how could a boycott of palm oil cause more harm than good when palm oil causes so much harm?

It’s complicated. Palm oil is used in just about everything — from cosmetics to food to home goods. If we plan to eliminate palm oil from our lives to benefit the earth that would mean a drastic change. Yes, change always involves, well, change. But, when we need a complete overhaul and re-evaluation of what’s driving harmful ecological change this change can’t be made solely on a personal level. Corporations who use palm oil at much higher rates than the average person would (unfortunately) have to be the driver of this change. They’d have to find a viable vegetable oil alternative that is shelf-stable, affordable, and sustainable.

Let’s take a look at the leading alternatives — coconut and olive oil. They meet the mark in affordability and shelf stability, but how do they fare at sustainability?

The land requirement and pesticide use for olive and coconut crops is significantly higher than that of oil palm for the same yield. Coconut and olive oils threaten more species per million metric tons than palm — 20.28 and 4.12 species per million metric tons of oil produced, respectively. Factoring in the 2019–20 annual production of coconut oil, 3.65 million metric tons, that’s over 70 species threatened annually from coconut oil production. Similarly, olive oil’s 2019–20 annual production is at 2.97 million metric tons, contributing to the endangerment of 12 species. Compared to palm oil’s endangerment of nearly 300 species, coconut and olive oil seem to be a no brainer swap. However, proportionally, they contribute to a higher rate of species endangerment. If the switch from palm oil to coconut oil is made there will be increased direct harm to animals with the increase of olive or coconut oil production. The switch from palm oil to coconut or other oils to ‘save the environment’ is only a bandaid fix. Although, unlike a bandaid, when it falls off, the wound won’t be on the mend.

Abandoning palm oil only to rely too heavily on any one vegetable oil, like coconut oil, without evaluating the true costs of the alternatives will only lead us back to where we are now — discussing the viabilities of other alternative vegetable oils. The recently idealized goal of eliminating palm oil from our lives is a seemingly impossible feat, and even if it were possible, would it be wise?

If the $88 billion palm oil market is significantly slashed, the effects would be most felt in Malaysia and Indonesia. Without precautions to supplement their economies, there would be further deforestation and animal endangerment as people struggle to feed their families. During COVID-19 lockdowns and the economy halted, illegal poaching in The Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra increased significantly as hunters began targeting animals for sustenance rather than game or trade.

Then, there’s the matter of anti-deforestation laws. While they also come from a place of concern, unless they are enforced and loopholes closed, their ability to fix the issue is severely reduced. Earlier this year, the Indonesian government rolled back 2009 restrictions that banned illegal logging and deforestation on previously untouched, natural forested land. The new cutbacks, which were enacted after years of lobbying by furniture manufacturers, also do away with v-legal licenses — the previously required licenses that certified timber was taken from legal sources. With these moratoriums lifted and poaching trends on the rise, the economic shift from palm oil could prove detrimental to the communities reliant on it.

Even while these laws were operating in the Indonesian government, they weren’t being enforced. There was no noticeable increase in arrests or decrease in illegal deforestation and logging before and after the laws went into legislation. Efforts in Brazil to limit deforestation met the same anti-enforcement. In 2006, Greenpeace spearheaded a successful campaign that sought to reduce the deforestation caused by soybean farms (which make up 1% of their deforestation) of the Brazilian Amazon by 70%. While these soy moratoriums are still in effect, farms are moving to regions, some of which have high biodiversity, with laxer legislation to continue their deforestation efforts.

Without serious consideration, our steps to save animals and plants, the rainforests, and the environment could be leading us further from a future that is sustainable. The best solution is to wean ourselves off of any one vegetable oil, especially unsustainable ones, support efforts to sustainably produce palm oil rather than go cold turkey, work to protect deforestation efforts, and, most importantly, conduct our own research into the ecological welfare of the world.

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