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No Tern Unstoned: Does sustainable palm oil really exist?

OPINION: If you know very little about palm oil and the challenges of producing it sustainably it won’t because your kitchen and bathroom cupboards don’t house lots of products where it is one of the key ingredients. Global production has doubled over the last decade or so to meet the growing demand for this ingredient, but at what cost, asks Miles King… one none of us, he suggests, will really want to pay.

The annual Lush Summit approaches - sadly I will not be able to be there. One of the events I would definitely have made time to go along to, is the panel debate on Lush and palm oil. The debate will explore whether it is possible to produce palm oil sustainably.  

The panel will include experts on orangutan conservation and the threats they face from palm oil plantation development; a representative of the Orang Rimba Indigenous forest people, who have been displaced by oil palm production; Danielle Morley from the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and Lush’s head of ethical buying, Simon Constantine.

So, why all the fuss? What is palm oil and what is the problem?

Palm oil (and products derived from it) will be present in quite a few household products and foods in your house right now. The Rainforest Action Network has produced a useful guide, which explains what products you’ll find palm oils in  - from biscuits to cosmetics, bread, shampoo and chocolate. The palm oil family of ingredients have found their way into so many products, they are practically ubiquitous.

The oil palm is native to West Africa but was taken to Malaysia by the British when it was part of the British Empire. Commercial growing started over a 100 years ago, but started in earnest after Malaysia gained its independence. Now Malaysia and its larger neighbour Indonesia account for the vast majority (87% in 2017) of the palm oil produced in the world. Oil palm production has really taken off in the last 20 years: global production doubled from 2000 to 2012. But it’s a crop with a massive social and ecological footprint.

Oil palm plantations often use child or forced labour. They have replaced tropical rainforest in places like Malaysia and Indonesia, destroying the homes of Indigenous peoples and the habitats of iconic animals like the orangutan, Sumatran tiger and Asian elephants. This is the oldest rainforest on the planet – and it supports the widest variety of different plants and animals of all habitats on the earth. Rainforests also provide a large chunk of the oxygen needed for most life, and absorb significant amounts of carbon dioxide. Without them, climate change and its impacts will be far worse.

Twenty-five years ago I was lucky enough to visit Borneo with a group of conservationists; we toured around the Malaysian province of Sabah, which occupies the northern tip of this enormous tropical island, visited some spectacular rainforest and saw the wildlife for ourselves. Even then, oil palm plantations covered most of the lowlands. One place, which I will always remember, was called Uncle Tan’s jungle camp on the Kinabatangan river. This was already just a small fragment of the riverine forest that had previously existed., but we saw proboscis monkeys, crocodiles, hornbills and lots of leeches. Illegal oil palm plantations continue to encroach on this forest despite it being - in theory - legally protected.  

Since then the area of oil palm has continued to expand. One reason was an utterly misguided effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Europe. A Renewable Energy Directive (the same on which created the maize biogas scandal) in 2008 led to the EU importing millions of tonnes of palm oil to make biodiesel for vehicles. This was despite the evidence that destroying rainforest caused far more carbon to be released than was ever recouped by using this “low carbon” fuel. Ten years later the EU has now decided that palm oil is not a green fuel and is phasing out its use by 2020.

How many thousands of hectares of rainforest have been destroyed as a result of this poor decision? Once rainforest has been destroyed and converted into oil palm plantation it is gone… for good.

Forest can be replanted but it is of much less value than the original forest. The most important places to restore forest are in areas where surviving fragments can be joined up again, to allow forest animals with large territories to survive without being forced into conflict with people.

Is it possible to produce palm oil sustainably? Lush doesn’t think so. It is working to reduce the amount of palm oil-derived ingredients in their products, but it is proving very difficult. RSPO claims that it is possible to produce palm oil sustainably, but its track record is not a strong one. Recently household product giant Unilever announced that, working with RSPO, they were now sourcing palm oil from an RSPO-certified group of 5,000 small-holders, rather than the massive companies that dominate the palm oil industry. What’s required of the smallholders to become certified suggests that the palm oil is being produced to a higher social and environmental standard than the industry norm. While laudable, it feels like this is going to make little difference to the continuing loss of forest caused by continuing expansion of oil palm plantation.

Indonesia and Malaysia may well criticize western countries like the UK for hypocrisy, when we demand they save their forests, having already cleared away all of of ours. And it begs the question who pays for forest to be restored when it has been lost; and what will the palm oil growers do for work if the plantations were to disappear?

To my mind, there is no question that funds should flow from the West to countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, to support the conservation of their tropical rainforests for all of our benefit. This needs to happen to a far greater extent than it has to date, and it needs to happen very quickly. Before it is too late.

Miles King is an Ecologist, founder of People Need Nature and a regular columnist for Lush Times. These are his own views. Follow him on Twitter @Milesking10



Once rainforest has been destroyed and converted into oil palm plantation it is gone… for good.

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