Palm oil: can it be environmentally sustainable?


Background on palm oil: The industry is linked to major issues such as deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty and indigenous rights abuses in the countries where it is produced, as the land and forests must be cleared for the development of the oil palm plantations (saynotopalmoil). Palm oil is in most of the processed food we eat made by companies such as Nestle, Kellog’s, and Pepsi. Why do people like it – it’s great for cooking, it has a creamy texture, extends the shelf life of that delicious jar of peanut butter, and it’s the highest-yielding vegetable oil crop (RSPO). Some argue that if we were to replace palm oil with sunflower or soybean this would cause even more deforestation and land use. Another argument in favor of palm oil is that it has created jobs for so many people and the economy depends on it.

In 2008, the RSPO developed a set of environmental and social criteria which companies must comply with in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). When they are properly applied, these criteria can help to minimize negative impacts (RSPO). Fast forward to 2016 “Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard” released by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) found decidedly mixed results.” WWF Scorecard Out of the 137 companies, WWF found that only 78 had made commitments to use 100 certified sustainable palm oil by 2015, while 30 have not made any kind of public commitment whatsoever (WWF). “One of the most important RSPO criteria states, no primary forests or areas which contain significant concentrations of biodiversity (e.g. endangered species) or fragile ecosystems, or areas which are fundamental to meeting basic or traditional cultural needs of local communities (high conservation value areas), can’t be cleared (RSPO).” Does an area of land exist according to this criteria? Is it really possible to find a forest that doesn’t contain biodiversity of species? How many of these criteria have to be met? Here you can find the details on how certification works.

My initial thoughts are this should be a mandate by the government for palm oil producers to operate, not an optional certification. If governments play hard ball the palm oil producers won’t get up and move locations, they have far too much invested in their current operational sites. Make them play by the rules.

I can’t help but feel that RSPO certification may not make a large enough impact to help mitigate the damage caused by palm oil production. It’s hard for me to believe that there can be much done to prevent deforestation, when the goal of production is to expand and grow revenue which means more trees planted to produce more oil. If you look at how palm oil is harvested – land clearing by burning forests, it doesn’t seem possible to minimize negative impacts. Not only are there terrible environmental impacts but negative impacts on indigenous people that once lived and farmed on the land now being used for palm oil. Governments have allowed corporations to take land from indigenous people, devastating their livelihoods (Takepart). This is my opinion but I could very well be wrong. Maybe RSPO is actually helping to make corporations accountable through certification. However, the very premise of mass production of palm oil does not coincide with protecting the environment and sustainability.

I’ve been critical so with that I have to also admit I do enjoy peanut butter and have purchased lipstick that contained palm oil among other things. We all have had a part in consumption of processed goods whether we are conscious of it or not. For the longest time I had no idea what palm oil was. However, I believe that consumers need to consume less, limit consumption of processed foods, get back to buying local produce at the farmer’s market and be conscience of waste. I am going to try my best to continue these practices in daily life.





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