The Case for Sustainable Palm Oil

environment palm oil sustainability

After sitting for countless hours researching recipes, doing everything I can to understand sustainability practices, and doing research I've come to an interesting conclusion.

PALM OIL MIGHT NOT BE THE ENVIRONMENTAL ENEMY WE THINK IT IS.

Wait. What?

Hear me out for a second. 

Sustainability issues have been a focus regarding palm oil for the better half of the last two decades, culminating in the formation of the  Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil or RSPO in 2004. The goal of the RSPO is to promote the sustainable production of palm oil - certifying palm plantations and subjecting them to audits by an accredited certification board that verifies that the harvesting and production processes adhere to the RSPO Principals and Criteria. 

One of the biggest concerns with palm oil comes with deforestation that occurs largely in Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as social issues that are beginning to manifest themselves in multiple industries ranging from food to - you guessed it - soap making, but when grown sustainable and according to the RSPO standards, oil palm plantations and the environment can indeed coexist. This absolutely includes a halt in deforestation, improving the habitats of wildlife, and ensuring that animals are unharmed.

 

So if we're so concerned about it - why not just stop using it?

Well, boycotting it removes the ability for sustainable solutions, and can (and likely will) make things worse. Switching over to another oil may seem like a "no-brainer," but in the end it creates a similar, and potentially larger environmental problem. See - there's a mentality in the industry that stopping the use of palm oil somehow makes a company seem morally superior to one that does use it - but when you take into account that oil palms can produce up to 10x more oil than other oil crops per unit of cultivated land - the true danger to the environment becomes more clear - and ultimately more land, be it forested or otherwise will be required. (think of how much oil one palm can produce vs one sunflower).  (1) (2)

According to The International Union for Conservation of Nature:

Oil palms produce 35% of the world’s vegetable oil on under 10% of the land allocated to oil crops, with most palm oil consumed in India, China and Indonesia. Three-quarters of all palm oil is used for food, as cooking oil and in processed foods, with the rest used in cosmetics, cleaning products and biofuel. The authors used satellite data to estimate the total planted area at 18.7 million hectares for industrial palm oil only, which gives at least 25 million hectares when smallholder plantations are included. This is higher than the area reported by producer countries, which adds up to 21 million hectares for all palm oil, But if it is replaced by much larger areas of rapeseed, soy or sunflower fields, different natural ecosystems and species may suffer. To put a stop to the destruction we must work towards deforestation-free palm oil, and make sure all attempts to limit palm oil use are informed by solid scientific understanding of the consequences. (3)

 

But what about the social issues?

When we look at Malaysia and Indonesia, it's estimated that between 4 and 4.5m people work in some aspect of the palm oil production process. This in turn helps keep poverty at bay, allowing a large portion of the population a better ability to support their families. Uprooting this way of life would plunge millions of people into poverty. When companies and countries begin removing their support of sustainable palm oil, there is less incentive for oil palm plantations to utilize sustainable practices - and in return, practices will shift to using unsustainable practices to support less demanding markets - thus it is ultimately better for both manufacturers and consumers to buy products that contain certified sustainable palm oil. (1)

 

Impacts

The RSPO 2018 Impact Report has shown an area of more than 263,000 hectares of High Conservation Value land has been set aside and managed by RSPO members, a 39% increase over the reporting year, with 83% increase in Latin America (66,229 hectares) and 132% (18,043 hectares) in Africa. Moreover the 2018 Principals and Criteria improved the criteria for certification by including: No deforestation, peatland protection and conservation, protection of human and labor rights and preventing exploitation. (1)

 

What even is High Conservation Value Land?

I'm gonna just rip this one right off of Wikipedia for its definition: 

high conservation value forests are those that possess one or more of the following attributes:

  1. forest areas containing globally, regionally or nationally significant: concentrations of biodiversity values (e.g. endemism, endangered species, refugia); and/or large landscape-level forests, contained within, or containing the management unit, where viable populations of most if not all naturally occurring species exist in natural patterns of distribution and abundance
  2. forest areas that are in or contain rare, threatened or endangered ecosystems
  3. forest areas that provide basic services of nature in critical situations (e.g. watershed protection, erosion control)
  4. forest areas fundamental to meeting basic needs of local communities (e.g. subsistence, health) and/or critical to local communities' traditional cultural identity (areas of cultural, ecological, economic or religious significance identified in cooperation with such local communities).

 

So wait... that means that sustainability practices are actually beginning to work?

I mean that's exactly how it's looking. There's still a long way to go to protect the environment and the wildlife, but as long as we all continue to buy responsibly, we can all contribute to the solution.

Moreover Malaysia and Indonesia's commitment to ceasing deforestation is forcing oil palm farmers to focus on ways to improve upon current practices. With selective plant breeding as a focus, it is estimated that the current land may be able to produce 10 - 20x the amount of palm oil in the coming decade while reducing CO2 emissions, and protecting valuable watersheds.

That's why we at Special Flower Oil Co proudly and consciously purchase RSPO certified sustainable oils - because at the end of the day, nature is about balance, and we understand that when the scales are tipped to far in either direction, that we can do more harm than good

 

Sources: 

1. Richards, F. (2019, February 26). The case for sustainable palm oil. Retrieved June 14, 2019, from https://fstjournal.org/features/33-1/sustainable-palm-oil 

2.  Fassler, J. (2016, March 01). Giving Up Palm Oil Might Actually Be Bad for the Environment. Retrieved June 14, 2019, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/giving-up-palm-oil-might-actually-be-bad-environment-180958092

3.  Saying 'no' to palm oil would likely displace, not halt biodiversity loss – IUCN report. (2018, June 26). Retrieved June 14, 2019, from https://www.iucn.org/news/secretariat/201806/saying-no-palm-oil-would-likely-displace-not-halt-biodiversity-loss---iucn-report?fbclid=IwAR0Ck6fnfn6ZQIO8kFHleofLPImb9aAjRlGkPgFP_h8BneI1fve3gAA23nA 


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