The slippery case of Palm Oil
Shining the light on the controversial palm oil industry, should we boycott it ?
Understand the controversy around palm oil in brief.
Canada | 2018 | 3 min 07
Language : ENG | Sub-titles : FR
Production: The Blue Organization
Photography : Guillaume Shea Blais
Understand | Environment | Agriculture
Reading time: 7 minutes
Text and research by Anne-Marie Asselin
Published December 2018
« Oil palm is one of the world’s most rapidly increasing crops and is a major contributor to tropical deforestation worldwide. »
Forests, soil, oceans, and the atmosphere store important amounts of carbon. Carbon-based compounds reside in all living organisms as a result of expanding organic matter. Thus, forests worldwide are considered the largest stores of carbon, an element housed within plants, animals, roots, and soil.
Imagine a pristine forest, innately varied and rich. Tropical forests are one of the most diverse natural systems on the planet. They hold large amounts of carbon in their living organisms. Furthermore, humans around the globe rely on this ecosystem for their livelihoods.
When a forest is cleared, the carbon housed in its organic matter vanishes, destroying a once complex interconnected system. This is known as deforestation or clear cutting.The clearing of natural forests occurs daily, worldwide.
How do we physically clear a forest?
Most natural tropical forests are currently cleared by man by setting forest fires, a method called slash-and-burn. In setting fire to significant portions of forest cover, the heat slowly consumes all living things into ashes from large and small trees, animals, insects, fungus, peat soil ... absolutely everything. As a result, the process of burning releases smoke, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere, contributing greatly to global warming. As consequential segments of natural green land are consumed by flames to make room for new cultivable lands, vast quantities of carbon are released into the atmosphere, warming the planet even further. The clearing of forests through slash-and-burn technique is currently occurring daily.
Agriculture has been one of the major drivers for the clearing of intact forests across the globe. Forests are primarily composed of photosynthetic organisms, such as plants and trees. Photosynthetic matter is crucial to the air we breathe. Contrary to our metabolism, plants and trees absorb Carbon dioxide within the atmosphere and emit oxygen as a metabolized product. Preserving forests is vital to our existence because in keeping carbon stores intact, we ensure the constant flow of oxygen into the atmosphere, that is to say, the air we breathe! They truly are the lungs of the earth.
Some argue that mature palm oil plantations are in essence preventing the problem by achieving photosynthesis, since palm trees are plants. They also reflect light more thoroughly because they are composed of tight rows of large trees, in comparison to alternative crops. Many believe a palm oil plantation is in fact a photosynthetic forest itself. It is partly true that a palm plantation is green, provides oxygen and purifies the air. However, deforestation accounts for 12% of global emissions and contributes significantly to GHGs emissions, making the industry the third greatest global contributor to climate change. Before a palm plantation becomes mature, five years of heat accumulating in open soil need to be accounted for, without mentioning these crops are a lot less biodiverse compared to their natural rivals.
The continuous expansion of agriculture is currently the greatest threat to biodiversity
(Tilman et al. 2001)
Oil palm is the primary motive for the clearance of intact forests to this day, around the tropical belt, worldwide. Palm oil Elaeis guineensis is grown across more than 13.5 million ha of tropical, high-rainfall, low-lying area, a zone naturally occupied by moist tropical forest, the most biologically diverse terrestrial ecosystem on Earth (Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005).
What does the loss of biodiversity have to do with climate change and the economy ? And why is it so important for biodiversity to thrive?
« At least 40 percent of the world’s economy and 80 percent of the needs of the poor are derived from biological resources. In addition, the richer the diversity of life, the greater the opportunity for medical discoveries, economic development, and adaptive responses to such new challenges as climate change. »
- Convention on biological diversity, UN.
« It has further been proven that biodiversity boosts ecosystem productivity where each species, no matter how small, have an important role to play collectively for the ecosystem balance. For example, a larger number of plant species means a greater variety of crops. Greater species diversity ensures natural sustainability for all life forms. »
The other problem : a rising demand for a very cheap and efficient oil
Palm oil is the cheapest oil produced on earth. With an expanding global demographic and the growing demand for the oil, the market has been booming since the beginning of the millenium. Animal grease is costly and plant oils such as canola or colza are hydrogenated saturated fat that have been proven to affect human health. Palm oil is cheaper and more efficient to produce than its competitors. In fact, palm oil has a much greater yield, compared to colza for example which requires much more land for the same amount of oil.
Palm oil is mainly found in food, cosmetics and biofuel. When we start paying attention to the products in supermarkets or pharmacies, we notice that palm oil has made its way into most aisles . From processed foods to instant noodles, ice cream to pizza crusts, from chocolate spreads to chocolate bars, candies and sodas, most corporations have converted to palm oil. Regrettably, palm oil can still be vaguely labeled as “vegetable oil”, making it impossible to trace its provenance and thus ensuring a lack of transparency for customers.
But where can one find palm oil at the pharmacy?
Palm oil is used as a saponification agent, as a hydrating ingredient or in shampoo as sodium palmate. In pharmacies, you will notice it in a vast offer of shampoos, deodorants, toothpastes, hydrating creams, perfumes and home products.
At the moment, Indonesia and Malaysia are the principal global producers of palm oil and as such, feed the world’s hunger for processed foods and industrialized products. While their forests are burning from the increased demand, a weak surveillance system and a lack of engagement from certain companies and government are becoming major contributors to climate change and ecological collapse. Furthermore, the Amazonian forest of Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama, as well as the tropical jungle in Africa are all under tremendous pressure for the expanding culture and economy (ref). Meanwhile, the Earth is getting warmer, biodiversity is consequently being displaced or eradicated ( mirrored by the fate of tigers, rhinoceros, or the indonesian orangutan, to name a few endangered species), and everybody on Earth is paying the price.
The blue organization does not believe the solution lies in banning palm oil.
Not only do people depend on this economy for their livelihoods, the demand would simply carry over to another type of oil. This would merely transfer the problem to another similar situation. Besides, palm oil can be ten times more efficient than various comparable crops and uses less land for a higher yield.
The real problem is allowing the clearing of tropical forests for new palm oil development. We need to stop clearing forests and use what has already been cleared.
No further expansion, right?
Is Palm oil more valuable to humanity than the preservation and protection of natural forests and endangered species?
The good news is that many policies such as “zero deforestation” have been extensively addressed in the last decade. Various strategies are planned to come into action in the year 2020. We are at a crossroad where environmental justice and fair nature management are taking precedence over the creation of more capital, bringing forward an economy aware of the value of nature. There is still tremendous work ahead, but the reality of today is that we cannot make any more excuses. We have been monitoring and compiling crucial data for the past century on any system using natural resources for human use. Things are about to get a little more complicated for big companies to simply use what’s available for the sake of the common good.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) meets every five years, in the form of a conference between major actors of the palm oil industry, bringing together farmers, buyer corporations, NGOs and environmental groups to deliberate ways to better this controversial industry. This fall 2018, from November 12th to 16th, Malaysia is hosting the 16th annual roundtable on sustainable palm oil. We think our work can help spread the message and propel forward stronger engagement to prioritize sustainable practices in the industry and to #StoptheExpansion of deforestation for new palm oil development.
Humankind is absorbing the consequences of slash-and-burn, land transformation, loss of biodiversity and global warming. Buyer corporations are not paying polluting taxes, nor are they required to compensate for the consequences of deforestation shared by all. How can justice be served?
Financial resources from palm oil would be better channelled into forest conservation efforts, law enforcement and empowering local communities. This could be fueling more jobs, increasing local revenues and putting forth a meaningful message for today’s society. A carbon tax could help establishing a balance with stronger legislation, reinforced surveillance and further investment in local communities.
Even the United Nations have an agenda to ban any products tied to deforestation from international markets by the year 2020 (UNFCCC, 2016).
What is reasonable to expect, as a consumer, from companies using palm oil in their products?
Well, it is as simple as a seal clearly showing buyers that their products stem from a “zero deforestation” policy in order to ensure that customers know where their oil is being produced. That way, a precedent is set for agricultors to respect sustainable practices, thus avoiding the clearing of tropical forests. This certification might resemble that of organic or kosher products. It is the consumer’s right to know what she/he is buying. It follows that the power should lie proportionately in the hands of both the seller and buyer : the corporations are responsible for adequately labelling the source and ingredients of palm oil, and the consumer uses these tools to make informed decisions.
About 20% of palm oil comes from sustainable farming.
Encourage the ones who put forth viable practices.
Start paying attention to your food and cosmetic labels.
This can greatly help you choose companies that are prioritizing sustainable customs.
Be aware, look, consume better.
Here are a few logos you can look for to help you choose sustainable palm oil products :
Basiron Y. (2007). "Palm Oil production through sustainable plantations", European Journal of Lipid Science Technology 109, 289-295.
Clay, J. (2004). "World Agriculture and the Environment: A Commodity by-Commodity Guide to Impacts and Practices", Island Press.
Évaluation des écosystèmes pour le millénaire (FR) (2005). "Current state and trends assessment", Washington D.C., Island Press.
La convention sur la diversité biologique, "les savoirs locaux au cœur des débats internationaux", B. Roussel, (2003). Synthèse, n° 02, Institut du développement durable et des relations internationales.
Fitzherbert E.B. et al. (2008). "How will oil palm expansion affect biodiversity?", Trends in Ecology and Evolution 23:10, 538-545.
Thomas, C.D. et al. (2004). "Extinction risk from climate change", Nature 427, 145–148.
Tilman, D. et al. (2001). "Forecasting agriculturally driven global environmental change", Science 292, 281–284.
Essington T.E., Sanchirico J.N., Baskett M.L. (2018). "Value of ecosystem-based management", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAs), 115 (7) 1658-1663.
Our positioning on the issue
We believe at the Blue org that traceability should be the major driver for change behind the palm oil controversy. As consumers, we ought to be met with the correct information to better make conscious decisions when buying a product. Ambiguity with regards to ingredients and traceability should not be tolerated. In setting this precedent, we know to encourage and respect the most basic requirements for gentle environmental impacts as well as appropriate work conditions of labourers. Coffee and the fair trade label is a good example of demonstrating corporate transparency and providing adequate tools for informed customers. This model could easily be replicated across a large array of products commonly found in selling points. Speed up the process!
Ask for traceability, choose sustainably.