Palm oil is an ingredient found in many everyday items we buy on a regular basis – from biscuits and instant noodles, to shampoo and lipstick.
Most of the world’s palm oil is grown in two countries: Malaysia and Indonesia. The rapid growth of the industry in response to increasing demand for palm oil has caused widespread clearing of tropical forests and peatlands – habitats that are home to many Critically Endangered species including the Sumatran and Bornean orangutans. This has led to numerous campaigns to boycott palm oil and a rise in individuals and companies pledging to go palm oil-free. With a recent major UK retailer committing to removing palm oil from their own-branded products, and another online-retailer in the UK having recently introduced the first "palm oil-free" supermarket aisle, it is expected that other companies may follow suit.
On the surface, the act of going palm oil-free seems to be a positive step to protecting forests and wildlife in palm oil producing countries. However, there is much more to the story.
Because palm oil is highly versatile and can be used in a wide range of products, it is in high demand. More importantly, one tonne of palm oil can be produced from as little as one eighth of the land needed for other vegetable oils – namely rapeseed, sunflower, and soybean oil. This efficiency is especially important given that global demand for vegetable oil is expected to almost double by 2050, putting forests and other natural habitats that are home to Critically Endangered wildlife at risk of conversion to agriculture.
Boycotting palm oil is therefore not an effective solution. If other vegetable oils are used instead this will require more land, and lead to greater habitat and biodiversity loss. Instead, retailers and consumer goods manufacturers should develop robust sourcing policies committing to purchasing palm oil that protects natural habitats and wildlife populations, as well at the rights of workers and local communities – including developing commitments to source palm oil certified under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). To improve practices on the ground, companies need to follow through with implementing their policies and engage and work with their suppliers to ensure compliance with their policies.
Transforming the sector also requires an increased demand for sustainably produced palm oil. Consumers should purchase products containing sustainably produced vegetable oils, including palm oil certified under the RSPO, and increase pressure on retailers to source sustainable palm oil. The RSPO is the world’s largest palm oil sustainability scheme, setting global standards for environmentally and socially responsible palm oil production.
In November 2018, members of the RSPO voted overwhelmingly to adopt stricter certification requirements to ensure stronger protection for forests and peatlands, and human and labour rights. Placing the RSPO at the forefront of global sustainability, the new requirements provide further assurances to companies and consumers that purchasing palm oil bearing the RSPO label meets high environmental and social standards. This includes requirements for companies to consider wider landscape impacts for new developments, including enhancing forest connectivity that is important for wildlife to move between fragmented habitats.
What is sustainable palm oil?
Sustainable palm oil is produced based on social and environmental best practices such as those outlined by the RSPO.
Independent research conducted in Indonesia has shown that RSPO certification leads to a 33% reduction in deforestation compared to non-certified concessions. This reduction was especially high in primary forests – important habitats for numerous species and critical areas that store significant amounts of carbon and help slow the onset of global climate change. Additional research by the SEnSOR research group has shown that High Conservation Value areas, which RSPO-member companies are required to protect and enhance, provide important refugia for endangered species including bird species listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
If we are truly going to make sustainable palm oil the norm, and protect wildlife and their habitats in the process, we must all work together to increase the demand and production of responsibly produced palm oil.
By Michael Guindon
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