This article was written by Monique van Wijnbergen.
Palm oil is a pervasive ingredient found on store shelves and in products like food, cosmetics, shampoo and even detergent. And, while it’s true that the irresponsible farming and production of palm, most commonly found in places like Southeast Asia, have led to the devastation of natural habitats, and local environments and wildlife, that’s not the full story. Palm Done Right is a mission-based educational platform dedicated to proving that there is a positive solution for palm oil. This is the second in a three-part series that takes a closer look at issues and misunderstandings around palm oil production and a deep dive into positive solutions for change.
Most people hear the word palm oil and think of deforestation and destruction, so it’s easy to understand how one might arrive at the answer of banning its production. While there has been a battle cry to boycott palm oil and a push for products without it, the answer is not that simple.
In the past couple decades, palm oil has become a ubiquitous product, found in everyday household products from food to personal care. In fact, palm and palm kernel oil accounted for 37% of global vegetable oil consumption in 2017/2018.
The rapid increase in the use of palm oil as an ingredient in such a wide variety of products is due to several factors. This outcome is the result of a mix of economic and political decisions taken by the US, EU and Southeast Asian Governments. The US and EU ruling on (food) crop-based biofuels accelerated the use of palm oil. Indonesia and Malaysia, by far the largest producers of palm oil, used palm growing as an instrument to boost their economies. Large volumes of palm oil became available in the market thanks to efficient growing and high yields at very competitive costs compared to other vegetable oils. This growth led to the use of palm oil as an ingredient at the turn of the new millennium.
Simultaneous to the widespread growth of palm oil, came awareness of its versatility as an ingredient for food and personal care. Palm oil has many advantages and is a valuable ingredient for texture, taste, stability and shelf life. This ingredient also gained popularity as a good replacement for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils which contain trans fats, as well as butter and lard. Palm oil’s diverse properties and versatility ensure the high product quality and performance that consumers are seeking in the market.
While palm oil accounts for 37% of global vegetable consumption, palm oil production accounts for just 10% of all farmland dedicated to growing vegetable oil crops. With such outstanding versatility and efficiency, it becomes clear that moving away from palm oil and replacing it with other vegetable oils will lead to the need for more agricultural land, and could increase deforestation, while resulting in potentially inferior products.
During the height of the ongoing palm debate, leading authorities had consensus around palm oil’s role in tropical biodiversity loss and agreed that reformulating products and boycotting palm only would only shift deforestation, not stop it. The result of this action would instead impact deforestation in other areas of the globe or even cause the need for more agricultural land use, which may ultimately worsen the state of our environment.
Two prominent environmental NGOs voiced their insights last year, when debates were mounting. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) concluded in a recent report that boycotting palm oil would merely shift — rather than counter — losses to rainforests caused by agriculture. According to the report, existing vegetable oils that could theoretically replace palm oil would be far more damaging to the environment, because of the land needs intrinsic with their production.
In a statement to The Jakarta Post, Kiki Taufik, head of Greenpeace Indonesia Global Forest Campaign, voiced Greenpeace’s position.
“To be clear, Greenpeace is not anti-palm oil, it is anti-deforestation,” he said.
“If palm oil is banned, companies or governments might turn to other crops, which might replace palm oil’s role in deforestation [or even worsen it] in Indonesia and elsewhere. We support palm oil from producers or palm oil companies that aren’t destroying forests or exploiting people, and there’s plenty of palm oil that fills the bill.”
Because of the properties of palm oil, reformulating product’s to omit it may be difficult and costly, if we hope to achieve the same product quality and performance.
Last year, UK-based supermarket Iceland Foods was the first to pledge to remove palm oil from all of its house brand products before the end of the year. According to UK magazine The Grocer, only a month into the new year, Iceland instead rebranded some of its own-label ambient, chilled and frozen foods. This move came after realizing it couldn’t remove palm oil from 32 products before year end. Instead of reformulating those products without palm oil, Iceland decided to rebrand those products, so it would still live up to its pledge.
Last year, Swiss retailer COOP took a completely different route when it announced publicly that it would be taking a big step forward to only use organic palm oil in its house brand products. In addition, the brand pledged to do the same in their conventionally produced own label products.
Saying “no” to palm oil may be worse than using it. Moving away from palm could result in a negative impact on the growth of sustainable practices and reduce incentives to do things right. We need to encourage good practices by rewarding deforestation-free and wildlife-friendly palm oil. The conversation needs to shift to one of organic and sustainable supply. COOP has set an example we can all follow.
We have a responsibility to consider what the future of palm oil could look like and what this could mean for tropical biodiversity and global conservation efforts. We believe organic and sustainable palm oil plays a role in shaping the future of palm, with farmers committed to agricultural practises that respect the forests and the animals that live inside it.
Palm can be grown for good, bringing benefits to:
Together, we can influence change for: