Ever since the British supermarket chain Iceland Food put a Christmas commercial with a palm oil boycott online, palm oil is hot news. The call for a palm oil boycott such as France recently announced is gaining more and more support. Yet there is also another sound. Opponents of such a boycott acknowledge the effects of palm oil production on people, animals and the environment, but believe that a boycott is counter-productive. According to them, a boycott shifts the problems to crops and farming methods that are even more damaging and therefore ‘sustainable’ palm oil is proposed as the solution to turn the tide.
However, the vast majority of palm oil is produced in a way that is not sustainable and cannot be sustainable. Using more palm oil cannot be justified from a sustainability perspective. We should use less palm oil and look at the problem from a much wider perspective: our consumption pattern and our use of agricultural land.
Consequences of palm oil production
Deforestation, land grabbing, biodiversity degradation, human rights violations, exploitation, river pollution, child labor, violence, climate change. Oil palms are grown in the most sensitive and ecological forests in the world and the consequences are extremely destructive for humans, animals and nature around the equator.
To be clear: palm oil is not the only culprit. Four commodities are responsible for the ongoing global deforestation: livestock, soya, wood and palm oil. Here we focus on palm oil because it is often a hidden ingredient in commonly used consumer goods.
Our consumption pattern
A mantra reverberates around the world that we cannot do without palm oil. Given the fact that palm oil is an ingredient in so many different products, it may seem that way, but it is not true. Palm oil is used so much because it is so cheap. Palm oil is also mainly present in products that we do not need. Think of prepackaged sauces, cookies, candy, ice cream, cosmetics, care products, cattle feed and biodiesel. Consumption of this type of products has also increased enormously in recent decades. Are you over forty? Then take a critical look at what you consumed as a child and compare that with what children today get in sweets, cookies and processed foods. Companies do their utmost best to sell us as much as possible of this convenience food.
How in the world do we justify the fact that massive deforestation, degradation of biodiversity and violation of human rights is a ‘necessary evil’ to meet our increasing consumption need for convenience foods?
Sustainable palm oil
The call to use sustainable palm oil mainly comes from companies and NGOs that are members of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which certifies palm oil as sustainable if it meets the requirements it has set itself. This is a global organization, founded by the industry itself (planters, producers, processors, investors) and some civil society organizations.
At the same time, the business model of food manufacturers who are members of the RSPO is rather focused on selling more precooked meals, resulting in large-scale agriculture and industrial production. In this approach of endless production, growth sustainability is hard to find.
Surprisingly, a definition of what sustainable palm oil entails is not given by the RSPO. They do provide a list of criteria based on which palm oil is certified as sustainable. However, even if palm oil is certified as sustainable by the RSPO, there is no guarantee whatsoever that forests has not been deforested, that no land grabbing has taken place, no exploitation on plantations or child labor. Journalists, NGOs and other institutions are constantly encountering violations of these criteria. There are hundreds of reports that mention the abuses on (RSPO certified) plantations. The RSPO has few enforcement options. The only thing that can happen to a member is the suspension or withdrawal of their membership; which is rare. Anyone can become a member; even if your palm oil is not sustainable or if you have logged tropical rainforest. It is painful to see that many multinationals base their ‘sustainability trust’ in the field of palm oil thereon. After a certification from RSPO, everyone is relieved and doesn’t seem to worry anymore.
Sustainable palm oil: is that possible?
If palm oil is indicated as sustainably produced, it should mean palm oil that is produced without (permanent) damage to biodiversity and local communities. Palm oil is almost always grown on mega-plantations, in a monoculture (except for the cultivation in some areas in West Africa where the oil palm originates) which by definition is not or cannot be sustainable.
The existing vegetation must be cut down, the soil should be drained and many pesticides, insecticides and artificial fertilizers are used that disrupt the ecosystem and poison rivers (also drinking water supplies for the local population). A plantation is left depleted after a number of production rounds (each round is about 20-30 years) when the yield of the crops is no longer profitable compared to the costs of the increasing amount of artificial fertilizer required. This degrades a rich rainforest to unusable, dead soil. Up till now, we have not come across a production method with which the soil on plantations can be permanently improved and oil palms can be planted continuously. The benefits are therefore temporary, but the damage to biodiversity and the landscape is permanent.
Moreover, the local population depends on one crop that is dependent on artificial fertilizer and pesticides for a good yield. If the price of that crop drops, as is the case with palm oil fruit (which is the raw material for palm oil), they have no alternatives to fall back on. In addition, they are very vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of artificial fertilizer.
The rising demand for palm oil cannot possibly be fulfilled in a sustainable way. The pressure on the rainforest will increase with all the consequences for biodiversity and local communities.
The certainty with which ‘sustainable’ palm oil is defended in the Netherlands and other Western countries is also remarkable for another reason. The fact that the oil palm yields much more per hectare than other oil-bearing crop apparently justifies the ecological damage we burden countries with on the other side of the world. We claim to be dependent on palm oil as Western consumers, but the consequences of that insatiable need are transferred to areas where nature and people have much more to lose than here. We have to take responsibility for our behavior and we need to consume less palm oil or other vegetable fats instead of more. Avoid processed food as much as possible and otherwise use local alternatives.
Alternatives for vegetable oil in Europe
Palm oil is particularly popular because it is so cheap. The productivity of the oil palm per hectare is many times higher than that of other oil-bearing crops, such as canola and sunflower. In addition, the cost price is low because farmers and plantation workers are often exploited. A boycott of palm oil shifts the ecological and social problems to these less productive crops, is a frequently heard argument. Palm oil is seen as the lesser of two evils. There is something to say against this.
It ignores the fact that crops such as canola and sunflower can grow almost everywhere in Europe. In Europe, most of the soil has already been cultivated, so no primary forests need to be cut down. Moreover, the oil does not have to be shipped around the world in polluting cargo ships and we see the ecological consequences of the production of these crops in our own environment. In addition, land grabbing, violation of human rights in the European Union – and certainly in the Netherlands – are largely non-existent. In short: the ecological footprint of the alternatives mentioned is very different from that of palm oil.
If we produce our vegetable oil locally, more agricultural land is needed. Agricultural land that we now need for cattle, cattle feed and the dairy industry. You can only spend what you have once. Therefore, we have to change something. That means, in addition to consuming fewer products that contain vegetable oil, also producing fewer dairy products and meat as well as setting up our agricultural policy differently.
If we use less land for livestock, cattle feed and the dairy industry, more agricultural land is available to grow crops for vegetable oils. In any case, our entire agricultural policy needs a metamorphosis. European agriculture must switch to a sustainable system of food production in which climate, nature and soil are no longer under pressure. For example, by choosing ecological farming methods where different crops are grown together and that are in harmony with the existing local ecosystem, such as agroforestry.
Alternative income in palm oil producing countries
Another argument often put forward in favor of palm oil is that the local population receives an income from palm oil production. With a palm oil boycott, we deprive them of the opportunity to provide for their livelihood.
To start with, this position does not take into account the timeliness of palm oil plantations. Farmers may now have an income, but what should these farmers do after the land is depleted? Just as palm oil is forced upon us by food producers, many local farmers are more or less forced to grow palm oil. In order to improve their livelihood and not just rely on a monoculture (such as palm oil), there are other ways to get income from their land.
In Borneo – where half of the rainforest has been cut since the 1950s, amongst others for palm oil plantations – it is possible, for example, to grow a mix of various fruits, arenga sugar, bamboo, coconut palm, spices, coffee and cocoa in existing forests. Naturally occurring trees such as the tengkawang, coconut and kemiri trees in Indonesia have been a natural source of vegetable oil for centuries. Together with cocoa trees, they can produce just as much oil per hectare as an average palm oil plantation *. This form of agroforestry can even yield much more income per hectare than a palm oil plantation, without the use of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides and with less economic risk, because the farmer is not dependent on the price of a single crop. Moreover, the farmer can always consume part of the yield himself in difficult times. In the case of arenga sugar alone, the income per hectare can exceed € 300 per month. One hectare of palm oil yields an amount of between € 60 and € 150 per month with an average production of 3000 kg of palm oil per hectare per year.
Additionally, a mixed forest can provide better preservation of biodiversity, much more CO2 absorption, oxygen production, clean water and less risk of diseases of crops compared to a monoculture palm oil plantation.
In order to provide the local population with income, no trees need to be cut down. Only the investments must be used differently, namely in the development of products based on natural commodities that can simply be extracted from the existing forest. Investments that actually motivate to plant more forest. In this way, the local population can take back their control and rights, instead of just being our raw materials supplier. Exactly what they did before palm oil became an ‘indispensable’ ingredient worldwide.
Palm oil is not a miracle oil
If palm oil grows in the right ecosystem and has a proper relationship with the natural environment and with people, it could be a great vegetable oil. But palm oil – whether it is labeled as sustainable or not – is not a miracle oil.
We should not go looking for a miracle oil that can replace palm oil, but critically acknowledge our own consumption patterns and arrange our own agriculture system in such a way that we can use alternative raw materials with a lower environmental footprint instead of palm oil. Alternatives that are not yet justified due to commercial and short-term incentives. This requires a responsibility from governments and companies that are now still too easily hiding behind the RSPO. Critical questions from concerned consumers are still too often answered with an easy reference to an organization that approves its own meat. That attitude must change: we should take responsibility ourselves for our excessive demand for vegetable oil.
There is no justification to be found in the fact that we lay down the disastrous consequences of our unrestrained demand for palm oil products among the people in countries on the other side of our globe. The true price of palm oil is sky-high. Nature – anywhere in the world – is not just “nice to have”. It is essential for our survival.
* This calculation is based on 455 trees on one hectare, which is a relatively low tree density (one hectare of rainforest contains about 450 – 770 trees per hectare (https://arxiv.org/pdf/1705.09242.pdf, https: / /www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2351989415300524))
Janneke Bazelmans, environmental lawyer and author of the ecothriller Verkapt (the story behind palm oil; in Dutch)
Alexandra Vosmaer, wild-links.com, producing rainforest friendly forest products
Dirk-Jan Oudshoorn, wild-links.com, producing rainforest friendly forest products
Hugo Wortel, Orangutan Rescue and the Dutch organization PalmolieVrij