Our heavy reliance on the ubiquitous palm oil causes significant damage to our environment. Efforts to set sustainable standards and best practices for the industry are welcome because abandoning palm oil is not the answer. While certified sustainable palm oil might seem like a short-term solution, ultimately, in order to minimise the environmental impact, continued research into viable alternatives for certain uses of palm oil is crucial.

The production of palm oil is a major contributor to deforestation, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia, where 85% of the world’s supply is produced. Palm oil is used in nearly 50% of everyday consumer goods; from personal hygiene items such as shampoo and toothpaste, to cleaning products. It is also used as a biofuel, in packaged foods and as a cooking oil in many parts of the world. 

It is a major cash crop, with higher yields and relatively lower production costs than other comparable oil crops, such as soy, rapeseed, and sunflower. To meet demand, large areas of biodiversity-rich tropical forests are cut down or burned, and the soil repurposed, for cultivation of oil palm trees. This destroys ecosystems, such as peatlands, and the natural habitats of a large number of species, including orangutans and tigers, which in turn leads to the endangerment of  many of them. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global palm oil industry is affecting at least 193 endangered species. 

The widespread deforestation also contributes to climate change through the emission of greenhouse gases when forests are burned and the conversion of carbon rich peat soil. Growing a monoculture crop to keep up the global palm oil demand also ultimately renders the soil unsuitable for planting over time, robbing the soil of its nutrients and resulting in environmental degradation that could be irreversible. 

Efforts to Produce Sustainable Palm Oil 

Due to increasing consumer awareness of these dangers to the environment, producers and other stakeholders in the palm oil industry are seeking to produce certified sustainable palm oil. 

In 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a non-profit organisation, was created with the mission of developing and implementing sustainable global standards to minimise the negative impact of palm oil cultivation. It unites seven sectors of the palm oil industry: producers, processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks and investors, and environmental and social NGOs. 

Currently, accreditation from the RSPO serves as the most widely recognised standard of sustainable palm oil and sets standards for best practises for producing and sourcing palm oil. These standards include eliminating deforestation, preventing the practice of the conversion of natural ecosystems, and eradicating the abuse of human rights from the supply chain.  

Problems With Certified Sustainable Palm Oil

Accredited sustainable palm oil as recognised by the RSPO is, however, not without its criticisms. Some have noted that RSPO does not adequately audit its companies, is slow to penalise members who break the rules, is overly influenced by its members with little representation of workers or impacted communities, enables greenwashing, does not set its standards high enough and does not do enough for small-scale producers of palm oil, who account for 40% of global production. According to Greenpeace, the RSPO “is as much use as a chocolate teapot”, mainly due to its slow action on penalisation of its members who continue to contribute to deforestation. 

There is also concern that RSPO accredited sustainable palm oil does not actually result in a lower environmental impact. In a study on certified sustainable palm oil published in 2020 by the journal, Science of the Total Environment, it was found that certified palm oil plantations had replaced endangered habitats of endangered species and the tropical forests of Borneo and Sumatra rich in biodiversity over the past few decades. The RSPO does not take into account areas which were previously deforested. This results in plantations being certified as sustainable even if they occupy previously forested areas. For these reasons, certified sustainable palm plantations do not truly have a lower environmental impact. 

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Why We Cannot Abandon Palm Oil

Although the growing of palm oil cannot ultimately be sustainable, at present it is one of the best alternatives to growing other oils. It is a more efficient, and less land intensive, crop than any other oil. 

According to the WWF, palm oil production accounts for 40% of the global supply of vegetable oil demand but uses only 6% of all land required for production of vegetable oils. By comparison, producing alternative oils would require up to nine times the land and would only shift the biodiversity impacts to regions where these other oils are produced.  

Viable Alternatives to Palm Oil

For a more sustainable future, the world cannot rely so heavily on one oil source. 

The IUCN recommends that effective policies and programs are needed to halt the clearing of forests for new palm plantations, including policies which limit demand for palm oil for non-food uses, which protects the forests and ecosystems in producer countries. 

While it is difficult to abandon palm oil, the BBC has reported that scientists are researching more exotic oil alternatives for food and cosmetics including shea, jojoba and mango kernels. None of these, however, are as readily available or as cost effective as producing palm oil.  

At present, palm oil remains the best option out of all other vegetable oils for its high yield and use of less land. That being said, it is important to continue to refine and improve the standards on what amounts to sustainably grown palm oil. It is also worth continuing the research on ways to diversify away from palm oil where possible.