Palm Oil: Can it be Sustainable?

So I wrote a post about palm oil a few months ago, where I stated that I was going to make real attempts to cut palm oil out of my life.

In these months, I have definitely made an effort to double check labels for palm oil, and as a result I would say I probably haven’t consumed more than 10 items containing palm oil. The only exception to this is when I have eaten out, as although I know the food I eat is always vegan, it’s very hard to know if there is palm oil in it. boudewijn-huysmans-705525-unsplash

The palm oil debate has really exploded in the past month, as a result of a banned advert condemning palm oil from supermarket Iceland. This has caused many people to rethink their usage of palm oil, but I have also seen a surge in people arguing the case for sustainable palm oil. The argument I see is along the lines of:

If we boycott palm oil then we will have to use another oil which is far less efficient and as a result we should only purchase sustainable palm oil.

First of all, it is highly unlikely that everyone is going to decide to boycott palm oil and we are going to suddenly have to swap to another oil.

Secondly, as I mentioned in my previous post, other oils can be grown in a wider variety of locations that don’t require deforestation. Some would argue that the more land you use, the more animals you are harming. This could technically be true. But, in my opinion I am less concerned with the death of small insects and animals that have limited sentience then I am with orangutans and many other animals that have lives which are just as emotional and sentient as our own. This and the fact that rainforests are habitats to a wider variety of animals than grassland for example. albert-augustin-30712-unsplash

The most well-known organisation when it comes to sustainable palm oil is the RSPO. They are a group of people from different sectors of the palm oil industry such as:

  1. Palm Oil Producers
  2. Processors and Traders
  3. Consumer Goods Manufacturers
  4. Retailers
  5. Banks and Investors
  6. NGOS

The RSPO has a set of guidelines which companies must follow in order to be certified sustainable. However there has been much criticism around them, some argue that the RSPO is set up in a way that benefits the companies more than anyone else. This report found that there are serious human rights issues of those working on RSPO certified palm oil plantations in Indonesia.

‘We found serious human rights abuses at each of the three plantations. They included labour trafficking, child labour, unprotected work with hazardous chemicals, and long-term abuse of temporary contracts.’

One of the parts of the criteria to be certified sustainable by the RSPO is to protect human rights, so evidently, they are not upholding their own standards. Tropical peatland is burned in South East Asia to make room for palm oil production. Peat contains carbon which when burned releases dangerous amounts into the atmosphere, contributing substantially to global warming. The RSPO has very recently (in the last month) announced a ban on peat burning, as well as a ban on all deforestation, when before it allowed deforestation certain types on rainforest. matt-howard-451737-unsplash

Many environmental activists and organisations are highly sceptical of the new, tougher certification standards the RSPO has set out this year, noting that the RSPO has failed to uphold many of its old standards, so is it really that likely that they will be able to uphold the new ones? See more about this here. It appears as though there is no real set standard or definition of ‘sustainable palm oil.’ I think us as consumers should be very cautious when it comes to trusting products which claim to have sustainable palm oil, as it seems there’s a pretty high chance that it’s not any different to normal palm oil. Recently, The Independent published an article stating that researchers at Purdue University, USA found that: ‘Plantations with eco-friendly endorsements have lost 38 per cent of their forest cover since 2007, while non-certified areas have lost 34 per cent.’ Yes, they really are saying that the palm oil plantations that are classed as sustainable actually caused more deforestation than the normal plantations. The study’s lead author, Roberto Gatti, noted that: ‘Our research shows quite unequivocally that, unfortunately, there is no way to produce sustainable palm oil that did not come from deforestation, and that the claims by corporations, certification schemes and non government organisations are simply ‘greenwashing’, useful to continue business as usual.’

So, to summarise, sustainable palm oil really is just a marketing gimmick. I highly recommend reading the rest of the Independent article, as it further uncovers the myths of sustainable palm oil. With all this evidence against sustainable palm oil, you’re probably thinking it’s really great that supermarket Iceland has decided to eliminate palm oil from all of its products. But, that’s not exactly true. Palm oil is used heavily in the feed of farm animals, for animals both being reared for meat and for those producing eggs and milk. Iceland’s Christmas mince pies used to be vegan, as they contained palm oil. Because of their ban, they have switched out the palm oil for milk. So, they are no longer vegan. Not only does their usage of milk mean cruelty to animals, it also makes it no more sustainable than if there was palm oil in it. As mentioned, palm oil is used heavily in animal feed, and so was likely used in feeding the cow that produced the milk that was used in the mince pie. As a result, palm oil is still used in the production of the product, just indirectly. The environmental harm is the same, if not worse, than when they used palm oil. This leads me to believe that Iceland’s whole palm oil free situation is just green-washing. They know people care about the environment, so they decided to capitalise on that.

All in all, I am going to continue to work towards boycotting palm oil. It is a difficult task, but I simply do not feel comfortable knowing that my purchasing of products containing palm oil is directly linked to the impending extinction of orangutans, as well as a number of other amazing species of animals.

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