Trouble With Palm Oil

Appropriating natural habitats for agricultural use is a leading cause of thousands of species going extinct every year. Orangutans are unwitting ambassadors for those species that are, or soon will be, sent into oblivion.

Expanding and new palm oil plantations, probably the most important vegetable oil of all, is the main driver of deforestation in Borneo. (1) 

A staggering statistic is that, in Indonesia alone, 146 football pitches of rainforests are lost every hour. (2)

And by 2050, scientists reckon we’ll have tripled our current use of palm oil, which yields over five times most of its rival vegetable fats (except coconut). It is incredibly versatile, found in 60% – 80% of all products on our supermarket shelves, and is even used in what seems like a green energy source, biofuel. (3)

When you study the stories of producers, pressure for expansion seems inexorable. Many palm oil growers are small co-ops or individual families, who must survive, which means maximising income. Others are big corporations, whose reason for being is to maximise profits. (4)

It might seem the march of deforestation for palm oil production cannot be stopped. Some suggest we take a pragmatic course if we want to save some of the wildlife we are losing and abandon attempts at wildlife-friendly farming in favour of setting up nature reserves? (5)

A glimmer of hope may be in increased productivity through research such as that being undertaken by Orion Biosains. But it is a slow process and we may run out of rainforest before increased yields can save them. (6)

The use of palm oil is a result of “push demand”, where producers anticipate consumers’ requirements. It seems to alter this, we need to alter producers’ behaviour by reducing demand/ educe demand. Iceland are taking a bold step as the first supermarket pledging to directly eliminate use of palm oil from its own brand products. (7)

It’s a grim conundrum. Consumers want cheap food. Palm oil is used as a cheap ingredient for a number of reasons, amongst them responding to the public’s calls to reducing reliance on unhealthy trans fats. (8)

If we stop the use of palm oil, demand would switch to another vegetable oil, such as soy, rapeseed or sunflower. As oil yields are lower, these alternative oils would have to be grown in even greater quantities, causing serious environmental problems, including deforestation.

I don’t believe there is one easy solution, life is not that simple. We need to keep knocking down problems as we encounter them, and don’t have the luxury of time. If reducing demand threatens profits, this will help make producers take seriously our demand to address the problems unfettered palm oil is creating. With them on side, deforestation can be halted in favour of improving efficiency, and illegal production can be halted.

Greenpeace summed it up:  “Iceland may be small, but it’s created a huge media storm. If companies want to avoid being shunned by their customers in favour of palm oil-free alternatives, and the industry wants to shield itself from more blanket bans, it’s time to reform.” (9)


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