August 28, 2015

Can Palm Oil be Sustainable?

Can Palm Oil be Sustainable?

by Rainforest Action Network @flickr

Palm oil production has been making headlines for its widespread destruction of land, air, water and life, both animal and human, for many years. These days, many people are only aware of the palm oil industry because of its devastating effects on the environment and contributions to climate change – never mind the fact that it’s in countless products we use every day and national demand for the substance is steadily increasing.

Considering the depth of scientific research, dire statistics and public opinion denouncing the industry, “sustainable palm oil production” often seems more like a misleading marketing term than anything else.


Palm Oil’s Ugly Profile

The truth is that palm oil production has been a terribly dirty industry. Between 1990 and 2010, palm oil development in Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea directly resulted in the loss of around 3.5 million hectares of tropical forest (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil). And Malaysian palm oil is one of the big reasons that, once almost entirely covered with forest, the country’s land area is retains only 59% coverage.

Every step of the palm oil production process seems fraught with environmental disaster. With deforestation comes species extinction. Deforested lands can’t hold onto soil in tropical rains, hence soil erosion and water pollution. Many producers burn forests before clearing, which results in tremendous air pollution, contributing to global warming and causing serious health concerns in surrounding areas. And the land cleared is often illegally ‘grabbed’ from local communities, constituting serious human rights infringements. To top it all off, the areas where oil palms can grow are usually occupied by ancient tropical forests home to fantastically diverse wildlife. These are some of the world’s greatest natural treasures, and they’re being completely destroyed. Despite all this, the industry just keeps expanding.

Sekonyer River, Malaysian Borneo by Rainforest Action Network @flickr

Sekonyer River, Malaysian Borneo by Rainforest Action Network @flickr

This is because the world is addicted to palm oil. It’s in everything – food products, detergents, cosmetics, soaps, and many other items. More than half of all packaged products Americans consume contain palm oil. Because it is so useful, global demand for palm oil has been described as “limitless.” This intense demand is why, between 2000 and 2012, global palm oil production increased by almost 40 percent.


The Idea of Sustainable Palm Oil

That the palm oil industry has been destructive is obvious. That it will continue to grow seems unavoidable. The question is – can this historically devastating industry grow sustainably?

The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) thinks it can.

Founded in 2003, RSPO is the world’s leading certifier of sustainable palm oil. With social and environmental standards “more comprehensive, robust and widely implemented” than any other such organization – standards developed by leading environmental organizations like WWF and Oxfam – RSPO would seem to provide hope for palm oil sustainability.

Being RSPO-certified requires many things of a palm oil producer, but the most important are fairly simple. Certified producers must obtain legal permission from governments and local communities before using land for production. They must also plant in ways that minimize soil erosion, and avoid planting on peat soils (which release extra CO2 when disturbed), and eliminate pollution from pesticides. They must not clear forests that are “ecologically rich.” And they must treat their employees fairly, respect the health of surrounding communities and be strictly audited on all these (and more) activities regularly – by outside agencies – to ensure compliance.

There is no doubt that complying with these standards would improve the sustainability of palm oil production. If every producer got certified, human rights violations would be eliminated, species extinction would be drastically reduced and soil erosion, water pollution and air quality degradation would decline as well. Exactly how much the various types of pollution would improve is not certain, but given the high level of RSPO standards and the massively destructive effects of uncertified practice, the improvement would undoubtedly be dramatic.

Although getting every producer RSPO-certified is a far-off dream, demand for sustainable palm oil is rising.

According to RSPO, sales of sustainable palm oil increased by almost 65 percent during the first two quarters of 2014. Of worldwide palm oil produced, sustainable palm oil is estimated to make up around 20 percent. More exciting still, over half of the world’s suppliers have committed to either producing or trading sustainable palm oil.

But in many cases, certified producers are moving only slowly towards sustainability, and RSPO’s standards, although high, are controversial.


A Questionable Certification

An RSPO-certified palm oil company, for example, is still allowed to cut down forests and clear land. This clashes with the fact that, according to WWF – one of the companies that drew up RSPO’s standards – “Forests do not need to be cleared to make way for oil palm plantations.” WWF also cites that “in 2003, although 12.5 million hectares of degraded land was available, most oil palm plantations were established in forested areas in Indonesia.”

Consumers and environmentalists can only expect so much from an industry that is so intrinsically damaging to the environment, so vital to the economies of producing countries, and in such high demand. Still, the fact remains that the health of the planet depends on improvements in dirty industries like palm oil production. And on a smaller scale, places like Malaysia depend on sustainable palm oil production for the continued development of the country and the health of its people.


Deforestation in Kedah, Malaysia by Wakx @flickr

Deforestation in Kedah, Malaysia by Wakx @flickr


Looking Forward

That palm oil production can be an entirely sustainable enterprise seems doubtful. That practices can improve dramatically is certain. Whether or not it will improve depends upon RSPO’s standards, international demand for sustainable palm oil, and – at the most elemental level – consumer willingness to pay more for it. So the answer to the question of “can palm oil be sustainable?” lies mostly in the behaviour and awareness of everyday customers like those reading this article.

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