Palm Oil: In Pursuit of Sustainability

By Lisa D. Hurst May 2, 2019 | 7 MIN READ

The Dirt

Every day, consumers are unwittingly caught in a catch-22. Palm oil, an ingredient in many of the foods we eat and products we use daily, has a reputation for deforestation and habitat destruction. But there is a solution: growing it sustainably.

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Sustainable Agriculture

Palm Oil: In Pursuit of Sustainability

By Lisa D. Hurst May 2, 2019 | 7 MIN READ

The Dirt

Every day, consumers are unwittingly caught in a catch-22. Palm oil, an ingredient in many of the foods we eat and products we use daily, has a reputation for deforestation and habitat destruction. But there is a solution: growing it sustainably.

So far today, I have brushed my teeth, scrubbed with a bar of soap, washed and conditioned my hair, applied foundation to my face and put on lipstick. It’s 7:00am and already I have used seven products that contain palm oil. By the end of the day after feeding my dogs, running the laundry and dishwasher and enjoying a much-deserved bowl of ice cream, I will add several more.

Until recently, I had no idea that these products I use on a daily basis are associated with habitat and forest destruction.  What is behind palm oil and is there anything I can do about this?

palm oil, Palm Oil: In Pursuit of Sustainabilityimage: IUCN Oil Palm Task Force/World Economic Forum

What exactly is Palm oil? 

In its raw form, Palm oil is a red-colored vegetable oil harvested from the fruit of the oil palm tree. The fruit is the size of a small plum and grows in large bunches weighing 20-50 pounds. The tree bears fruit for about 25 years and is grown in the tropics. Humans have eaten palm oil for thousands of years and almost everyone in Africa and Asia relies on palm oil as a staple food for everyday cooking.

palm oil, Palm Oil: In Pursuit of Sustainability

Photos: clockwise – oil palm plantation; oil palm tree; harvesting, the fruit and kernel.

Palm oil is a very versatile product

Palm oil is one of the most versatile products in the world. Among many attributes, it helps soaps produce bubbles and gives it cleaning power, allows lipstick to stay smooth and creamy, preserves the crisp in crackers and is a good source of fiber and minerals for my dogs.

Oil is extracted from both the fleshy part of the fruit as well as the seed (the kernel). Both sources can be fractionated, distilled or hydrogenated many different ways for use in the food and consumer products industries.

There are many names for palm oil, making it difficult for consumers to identify in products. While some of these ingredient names are straightforward, like Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, other names are less obvious, like Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, and Sodium Laureth Sulfate. The World Wildlife Fund provides a good list of other names for palm oil.

Palm oil lifts millions out of poverty

Palm oil is produced in the tropical regions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but Malaysia and Indonesia produce the bulk (85%) of world palm production.

Almost half of the palm oil produced today comes from smallholder farms. To these farmers and their families, palm offers a better life. For example, in Sabah, a state in Malaysia, the “palm oil boom has meant paved roads, better schools, and satellite television. In the state’s capital, gleaming new shopping malls feature Western and Asian luxury brands.”

palm oil, Palm Oil: In Pursuit of Sustainability

Palm oil plantation in Sabah, Malaysia. Photo: Mongabay

Palm oil is a very efficient crop

Aside from producing two oils, oil palm is a very efficient crop in terms of land use and yield. It is harvested throughout the year and produces more oil per hectare on much less land when compared to other crops such as sunflower, soybean or rapeseed.

palm oil is an efficient crop

Source: International Union for the Conservation of Nature (ICUN)

Because of these benefits, the global demand for palm oil continues to grow.  Palm oil production has more than tripled during the past two decades and it represents over one-third (37%) of the major vegetable oils produced in the world.

Palm highlights a challenge between a beneficial oil that lifts people out of poverty, but if grown without boundaries, it can encourage deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and poor working conditions.

But boycotting or banning products that contain palm oil won’t solve the problem of deforestation, nor will it improve the livelihoods of farmers or the economies of developing countries.

The solution lies in farming and producing palm oil sustainably so that we can take care of the planet and people.

The frameworks for sustainable production

The overarching environmental global frameworks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb deforestation are set up in the Paris Climate Agreement and the New York Declaration on Forests. Human rights are guided by the U.N.’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Certification schemes provide criteria to produce sustainable palm oil. The Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was initiated in 2004 and brings together representatives from across the palm oil sector.  Mandates include fair working conditions, protecting land rights of local people, inhibiting the clearing of primary forest, protecting wildlife, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and minimizing industrial pollution.

Today RSPO reports that 19% of the world’s palm oil supply is sustainably sourced and produced with the guiding principles to protect Prosperity, People, and Planet.

Malaysia, which produces nearly half of the world’s RSPO-certified palm oil, has developed its own certification standards in concert with RSPO’s foundation, but to support local needs.

NGOs raise awareness, companies respond

Over the past 20 years, the efforts of responsible environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Foundation and Rainforest Alliance have played a very important role in bringing people’s attention to the negative impacts of palm oil production.

The work of these groups, as well as others like The Earthworm Foundation (formerly The Forest Trust), have successfully partnered with companies that buy, sell, invest or trade palm oil to invest in sustainable palm production. These initiatives have included educating farmers on efficient farming practices, providing higher yielding/less input-intensive varieties of palm, innovative land-use techniques, as well as improving worker and community life.

palm oil, Palm Oil: In Pursuit of Sustainability

Source: Center for International Forestry Research

Large producers like Cargill or buyers like L’Oréal, Nestlé, Unilever or McDonald’s are putting forth serious efforts to improve the sustainability of palm oil. These companies and many more realize that to keep on producing products in a world with limited resources, they need sustainable and transparent supply chains for their raw materials. They also realize that negative publicity can quickly put their brands’ reputations at risk.

Satellite technology is one of the new tools being deployed to help palm oil producers, traders and buyers track deforestation and assist them in their sustainable efforts. Starling, Global Forest Watch, and even NASA monitor land cover changes in real time, and with this information companies can pinpoint offenders accurately and move quickly to address deforestation events.

There are still challenges

But still, there are challenges to sustainable production. Palm oil from different sources is mixed together at various stages of the production cycle, making traceability difficult. Additionally, there are thousands of people, cultures, governments, and companies involved in the palm oil supply chain, from small farmers to oil palm plantations to processors, traders and distributors, retailers and consumers.

According to Scott Poynton, founder of the Forest Trust, “every agricultural crop in the world has a footprint.” Scott and other industry experts believe it is possible to protect forests, endangered species, and indigenous peoples while producing palm oil sustainably. It takes all stakeholders to have the conversation to keep their commitment.

palm oil, Palm Oil: In Pursuit of Sustainability

Source: International Union for the Conservation of Nature (ICUN)

What you can do – use products that use sustainably produced palm oil

Boycotting palm oil is not the solution. That would mean replacing it with less efficient crops with greater potential for environmental damage. It makes more sense to look for sustainably sourced products when you can.  Rainforest Alliance Certified™ producers meet standards that require environmental, social, and economic sustainability. And the World Wildlife Fund maintains a palm oil scorecard for companies and brands.

You can also go to the manufacturer’s website of the product you are using and search for their sustainability outlines. For example, I use Dove soap, and Unilever happens to be one of the largest buyers of palm in the world and is pushing for a visible, traceable supply of palm oil.

The Bottom Line

The world demand for palm oil isn’t slowing down anytime soon. But the industry is moving forward on commitments to source from a sustainable, transparent supply chain. As consumers, you can do your part and buy only certified palm oil. If you use a palm product that doesn’t divulge a source, be proactive and contact the maker of the product.