Palm oil production is often vilified. Almost all of us have seen the Greenpeace video, ‘there’s a Rang-tan in my bedroom’ (I’ve included a link below if you haven’t) that shows us the impact that palm oil plantations are having on a lot of the rainforest in Malaysia and Indonesia, pushing animals like the Orangutan closer to extinction and releasing huge amount of stored carbon and methane into the atmosphere as vast swathes of rainforest is cleared and burnt.
In many developing countries it’s becoming an increasingly vital source of income. Palm oil can be grown at a relatively low cost and because of the demand from the Western world, it can be sold off at a large profit. Unfortunately, many of those profits are not yet reaching plantation workers who are paid low wages and often exploited. Important regulations to protect workers are still catching up on the palm oil boom of recent decades,
The reality is is that palm oil isn’t going anywhere and demand for the versatile plant will only increase in countries all over the world. But how can we ensure that palm oil is produced sustainably with as little impact on the environment and gives a fair wage and work conditions to the millions of workers employed by the palm oil industry?
What is Palm Oil?
The majority of palm oil plants originate from Africa. The African palm oil plant was traded by the British throughout the 19th century as it could be used to produce a number of different smaller products like candles and soaps. However, when scientists were able to isolate glycerin from the oil during the early 20th century, its applications increased tenfold, which is why it is one of the most widely used products today. Industrial-size palm oil plantations increased in number and size, particularly in south-east Asia.
Its uses vary enormously. Palm oil is a key ingredient in the filling in oreo cookies, many makeup products, nutritional supplements and can even be used as a biofuel. Developing countries in the tropics use it widely as a cooking oil – which is why India is the largest national consumer of the oil. In contrast, 51% of imports to the European Union are used to power cars and trucks.
Growth of the Oil Palm
Data from the USDA has shown that production has rapidly grown since the 1970s from around a million metric tonnes produced annually in 1970, to almost 70 million metric tonnes produced in 2017. Almost 85% of all palm oil production comes from Malaysia and Indonesia, with the rest coming from a number of other countries in the Tropics. This huge rise in production of palm oil in the south-east Asian island nations has contributed to one of the biggest environmental disasters in modern times.
Borneo, an island shared by Indonesia, Malaysia and the small country of Brunei has been heavily deforested in recent years. Whilst palm oil is not the sole cause of this, it has contributed to 47% of deforestation on the island since 2000. More than 150,000 critically endangered orangutans on the island were been killed between 1999 and 2015 as the species is just one of many pushed closer and closer to extinction.
As regulations and conservation efforts increase in south-east Asia, those looking to take advantage of the environment and low wages look towards central Africa and the Amazon for palm oil expansion. As described in a recent article in the final monthly National Geographic magazine, Gabon is looking to diversify its economy away from petroleum and is identifying ways for it to do so sustainably before the palm oil industry destroys thousands of hectares of the African rainforest. It must not stop there either, others must follow the Gabon example.
How can we make Palm Oil Sustainable?
Given the diversity of uses that the palm oil plant has, it’s certainly fair to assume that its growth will continue around the world. We can make changes in this country by following the example of Iceland and boycott products that contain palm oil, or we can push nations and the palm industry to enforce much tighter regulations and laws on the production of palm oil and protection of rainforest.
One-fifth of the global supply of palm oil is certified sustainable. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) aims to reduce the environmental destruction of palm oil and ensure that workers are given a fair wage and work in acceptable working conditions. Large corporations like Unilever, Nestle and Proctor & Gamble have all committed to only sourcing sustainably grown palm oil in all of their products by the end of the year. This in itself is a big step.
The Iceland supermarket chain has gone in a different direction. They have removed palm oil from all of their products until it can be ensured that palm oil is no longer destroying rainforest around the world. They argue that by removing palm oil from its own-brand products they can give consumers an ethical choice to avoid palm oil.
Iceland’s decision to remove palm oil from its products does benefit consumers by giving them an option to avoid it as well. However, the demand for palm oil in the UK and around the world is so high and continuing to grow that it will not significantly reduce the demand. Palm oil that once went into Iceland products will simply go elsewhere, doing little to create a more sustainable industry.
Multinational companies and nations have the wealth and ability to look down their supply chains, right to the point of where palm oil they use is grown. They need to use this to pressure the palm oil industry to create a more sustainable production line that doesn’t continue the rainforest destruction that we have seen in the last few decades and that workers receive fair wages in a much better work environment.
The move by Unilever, Nestle and Proctor & Gamble to only source sustainable palm oil can encourage others to become more sustainable as more look to follow suit. But companies don’t even have to change supplier. In the age of globalisation, there is nothing stopping a company working with suppliers to create sustainable plantations that educate local people and officials on the best way to grow palm oil that ensures a profit to the business and helps protect what remains of the rainforest in Malaysia and Indonesia.
What is needed is for corporations to take the lead and recognise that they have the ability and economic power to make positive changes in regions that will continue to be exploited. All that’s missing is the will to do so. Without change, the destruction seen in Borneo and other parts of south-east Asia and the ecological disaster we’ve created will be repeated in Africa and the Amazon…
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