On 13th December a new law came into effect requiring manufacturers in European Union countries to clearly state whether palm oil was used as an ingredient. Although environmentalists, conservationists and wildlife groups are celebrating, it is possible that this new law will be - in terms of the environment, conservation and wildlife – an absolute disaster.
It is estimated that by 2050 the global population will have reached 9.1 billion. Feeding this many people will require an increase in food production of up to 70%. Those countries which supply the world’s sugar will have to double exports. Those countries which supply cereals and vegetable oils will have to triple exports.
At present 4.6 billion hectares are given over to agriculture globally. 3.3 billion hectares for livestock and 1.3 billion hectares for arable commodities from corn to soy to brussel sprouts. The amount of land needed to meet future demand will be vast, and governments, companies and the UN are pouring resources into identifying those crops which require the minimum amount of land and deliver the maximum possible yields.
For vegetable oils palm oil, the most widely used vegetable oil, is the automatic choice. The second most used vegetable oil is soybean oil, which requires almost 9 times the amount of land (2.22 hectares per tonne) to produce the same amount of oil as the oil palm (O.26 hectares per tonne).
Soybean currently uses 40% of the land used for vegetable oil production globally, and it yields 22.5% of the global vegetable oil supply. Palm oil currently uses 5.5% of the land used for vegetable oil production globally, and it yields 32% of the global vegetable oil supply (See chart).
In terms of efficient use of resources, palm oil is a no-brainer.
We do not, as a species, have the best track record when it comes to looking after our planet. If we’re honest, it is highly unlikely that that track record is going to change.
When discussing deforestation, statistics depend entirely on how far back into history you place your starting point. Everything was rainforest at one point, but today Europe, where mechanised agriculture first developed, is now only 30% forest, compared to a developing nation like Malaysia which is still 60% forested (more if you include the plantations).
Palm oil, because it grows most effectively in some of the most bio-diverse regions of the world, poses a threat – if not grown sustainably – to both forest and wildlife. In the 1980s deforestation in Southeast Asia was rampant and a great number of species have ended up on the endangered list as a result.
But over the last ten years there have been two major developments in the palm oil sector. Firstly, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was set up in 2004 to address the environmental impact of palm oil. In the same period wildlife and environmental groups have made palm oil the poster crop for everything that is wrong with agrculture. These two developments are far from complimentary.
In most cases the groups attacking palm oil don’t actually care about palm oil: it has merely been identified as a threat to whatever it is their organisation was set up to protect, be that great apes, elephants or the environment generally. If the orangutan lived in the Amazon the problem would be the destruction of rainforest to create space for beef cattle, and the campaign to save the orangutan would be an anti-burger campaign. (With around 70% of agricultural land used for raising livestock, a campaign promoting vegetarianism would be by far the most effective way to end deforestation.)
This is not to denigrate the goals of these organisations and it is obviously vitally important that our population growth doesn’t see these species become extinct, but as our population growth leads to a massive rise in demand for vegetable oils, the risk to rainforest and its inhabitants will become that much more acute, and these groups are attacking the very crop which could – if grown sustainably – pose the minimum risk to forestry and wildlife. Rather than encouraging the public to be anti-palm oil, NGOs and others will have a far better chance of achieving their aims if they encourage the public to become pro-sustainable palm oil.
There are a great many factors involved in how sustainable agriculture can be of course. Malaysia has laws governing how much land can be used for agriculture, some other oil producing countries don’t. The multinational plantation companies, their management and their shareholders need to invest in sustainable production (and this shouldn’t pose too much of a financial headache: given future demand, having a share of one of these companies will be more than worth the investment). Smallholders too, which make up 40% of palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia, also need to be helped – financially and technically – to become more sustainable. The West, crucially, needs to stop talking down to developing nations (telling them to stop deforestation while refusing to reforest their own back gardens) and cough up the cash and technical assistance, where necessary, to ensure that development is sustainable.
A key influence on whether companies chose to use sustainable palm oil will be how much they feel it will affect their bottom line if they do. Some NGOs have very effectively targetted companies for using palm oil (this Greenpeace YouTube video went viral), and many producers live in fear of what a negative campaign can do to their brand.
The new EU law was passed in 2011 with an implimentation date of December 2014 to allow manufacturers time to get their houses in order. Despite only being in force for a week (at time of writing) the legislation is already having an impact. Since 2012, many manufacturers have changed their recipes in favour of another vegetable oil.
Palm oil is the best hope we have of meeting the needs of 9 billion people as sustainably as possible. By introducing this new labelling law, the EU parliament, and those groups who have lobbied so hard for the label, are encouraging manufacturers to use less sustainable vegetable oils such as soybean, cottonseed (13.8% of land, 2.7% of oil supply) or sunflower (10% of land, 7.9% of supply).
I attended two conferences on palm oil this year, one organised by the industry, the other by the RSPO, and at both conferences every speaker – without exception – used the word ‘sustainable’. Contrast that with a #palmoil tweet I read while sitting at the RSPO conference which said: “I really hope companies phase [palm oil] out of their products, sustainable or not…”
That tweet is the result of the overwhelming message the consumer receives from the anti-palm oil groups: ‘Palm oil is bad’. Not ‘Non-sustainable palm oil is bad’, or ‘There is good palm oil and bad palm oil’. The message is simply that all palm oil, regardless of how it is produced, poses a threat to forests and wildlife. On some sites it is even called ‘Conflict Palm Oil’ (even the campaign against Conflict Diamonds didn’t blame the diamonds). When an idea like this has been planted in the mind of the consumer, the concept of sustainable palm oil holds little more positive meaning than say, sustainable drug abuse, or sustainable football violence.
The mis- and dis-information seen online may or may not come directly from the NGOs. At best it could be the result of the Chinese Whispers that the internet is prone to, but if a company has to make a decision about a product line and is paying attention to the public perception of palm oil (‘sustainable or not…’), then the long-term impact of the language some campaigners use when discussing palm oil could be severe.
Some good news
Many NGOs are quietly, effectively, working on the ground in places like Sumatra, Borneo and Sarawak to educate smallholders on sustainable farming. Wild Asia, a Malaysian organisation, works with smallholders and their communities to help them see the benefit of, and to impliment, the RSPOs procedures for cultivating sustainable palm oil. At the other end of the scale, large producers and buyers are signing up to zero-deforestation agreements and implimenting RSPO standards.
Even the media is beginning to come round to the idea that sustainable palm oil might be the way to go. The Guardian newspaper in the UK recently teamed up with the RSPO and is beginning to publish more balanced articles on palm oil.
Environmental and wildlife NGOs need public support to prevent deforestation and protect endangered species. The problem moving forward is that the very commodity that was responsible for this habitat loss 30 years ago is the only commodity that can minimise further habitat loss in the future.
The public palm oil narrative needs to change to reflect that.
If you have something to add and would like to Comment on this article, please head over the the Blog