This month I’m going to talk about palm oil and you might not initially agree with what I’m going to say, because chances are you actually try to avoid it.
I’m telling you right now, that’s probably not the best thing for you to do.
I can hear the howls of outrage from here, so let me explain. I’m going to give you some facts rather than just well-meaning emotive soundbites about orangutans and deforestation.
I get rather frustrated when someone tells me that they won’t buy products containing palm oil, for quite a few different reasons. Mainly, because while they are coming from a good place, there is a high chance they actually know almost nothing about the subject or about the consequences of their decisions. Also, because they probably don’t even realise most of the occasions when they’re consuming palm oil. Then there is the fact that there is absolutely nothing wrong with palm oil itself and quite a few good things about it and finally (but most importantly) most people have no idea that a decision to not use palm oil may be really harmful to some communities of people and actually have the opposite effect to that which they are seeking.
Making an informed decision about palm oil
I don’t have a problem with informed decisions made by anyone, but decisions made in ignorance are another thing.
Let’s just get this said - it is absolutely true that the farming of oil palms has contributed to deforestation, pollution, erosion, loss of habitat for creatures such as orangutans and ultimately, climate change.
But most people don’t understand the true drivers of deforestation. Just last week I was listening to an interview with Australian Leif Cocks, who is the founder of The Orangutan Project and has spent his entire life working with and advocating for orangutans. He believes that focusing on palm oil is a red herring. As he said, if palm oil was the only crop causing deforestation (and you could also remove the value of the trees being cleared) then it might be worth boycotting it. But there are numerous other crops that rainforests are cleared to make space for – pulp, paper, rubber, beef, soy and tropical timber, just to name a few. These are all unsustainable monocultures that create short term profit. The main cause of deforestation is GREED. So, if you completely banned palm oil tomorrow, forests would continue to be destroyed at the same rate without any real meaningful positive change on the ground for orangutans. You can listen to this interview here, if you’re interested.
The unintended consequences of boycotting palm oil
So, what would be the consequences of boycotting palm oil? It could in fact lead to increased deforestation. Because the oil palm is a high yield crop - it’s efficient. Palm oil accounts for 35% of the world’s oil consumption and yet it is grown on only 10% of the world’s oil producing land. If the oil palm was banned and had to be replaced by, say, soy beans, those replacement crops would require up to nine times more land. Already, soybean farming is responsible for more deforestation than palm oil, but nobody is talking about banning tofu. There’s a very weighty EU report that studied deforestation through the 90’s and early 2000’s which has lots of pretty dry and dense information but one of the things it says is “deforestation was mainly associated with two crops and their derived secondary crop products, namely soybean cake and soybeans (together 82%) and oil palm (17%).” Here’s the whole thing.
Half of the worlds’ population uses palm oil in food and many small communities rely on income from it to survive. Three quarters of the palm oil used in the world is in food. A boycott would result in people starving. You can read more about these issues here.
While you might think of big multinationals when you’re thinking about the producers of the palm oil you’re boycotting, that is not always who you are affecting. Globally, more than 7 million small scale farmers and smallholders make a living from the oil palm. In Malaysia and Indonesia alone, smallholder production represents about 40% of palm oil produced. A boycott would mean disaster for these communities and families.
Like most problems, once you actually understand some of the issues involved, you begin to see that the issues are complex and that there are no easy answers. Palm oil is here to stay, so we need to figure out how to manage it better.
The scientific research of leading conservationists, conservation organisations, wildlife charities and NGOs around the world all lead to one solution; deforestation-free sustainable palm oil.
Does sustainable palm-oil really exist?
This is where the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil comes in. It is a not for profit that works with producers to minimise the harmful effects of oil palm farming. It has developed a set of environmental and social criteria which producers must comply with in order to use the RSPO certification. It’s not perfect, but it’s a solid start. Instead of avoiding products containing palm oil, you should be asking if the palm oil they contain is RSPO certified. Only consume those. Then, you’ll start making a difference.
The RSPO approach is being adopted by some of the heavyweights in the climate action world. In Prince William’s Earthshot Prize: Repairing Our Planet initiative, he and David Attenborough showcase solutions for bringing the planet back to good health and one of them is a project working on sustainable palm oil.
The WWF (World Wildlife Fund) is onboard too. Here’s their pitch for sustainable palm https://www.facebook.com/OurPlanet/videos/palm-oil-our-planet/366889537255946/ and here’s their summary on why they do not support a boycott of this product https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/8-things-know-about-palm-oil
In 2019 over 100 organisations (including Auckland and Wellington Zoos) signed a statement in support of sustainable palm which begins with the words “The conservation organisations listed below are committed to driving the palm oil industry in the right direction, and support a move to sustainable palm oil and not a blanket boycott.”
Now that I have made the case for growing palm oil, why should we be using it? Firstly, I have to go back to the fact that it is a very efficient and high yielding crop so actually one of the most sustainable oils to produce for the amount of land it requires. But it is also full of Vitamin E and antioxidants. Used in combination with other oils in soap, it produces a firm bar which is less soluble in water - meaning it will last longer. It also cleans well, saponifies easily and is mild.
So when you ask me whether I use palm oil in my soap, I’m going to say yes – I use RSPO palm oil. Now that you know what that means and what’s behind it, I hope you’re not going to screw up your nose and walk off.