Palm Reading: Debating the Future of Palm Oil
A Useful Product that Destroys Rainforests
In tropical rainforests around the world, home to about half of all of Earth’s animal species, people have destroyed millions of acres of forest to cultivate oil palms. Massive deforestation has evicted countless animals. It has also contributed to global warming because trees absorb carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere. A recent New York Times editorial that addressed the link between palm oil and climate change reported that Indonesia, a top palm-oil producing country, has become one of the world’s worst greenhouse gas emitters because it “lost one-fifth of its forested area.”
The rainforests of Borneo, an island of 19 million people off Malaysia’s east coast, face a similar fate. Dr. Glen Reynolds, lead scientist on the Earthwatch expedition Climate and Landscape Change in Borneo’s Rainforest, has studied deforestation in Sabah—a Malaysian state that occupies the northernmost part of Borneo—for more than a decade. He recently wrote in The Guardian that “the major threat now faced in Sabah is around a shift in land use driven by a rapid expansion in the demand for—and the profitability of cultivating—palm oil.”
Finding a Balance between Meeting Demand and Protecting Forests
The “profitability of cultivating” part complicates things: palm oil may cost endangered species like the Bornean orangutan their home and accelerate global warming, but it also provides income and infrastructure in some of the poorest places in the world. And the potential for profit is growing: as The New York Times reported, “Demand is high, especially in the West, and it is likely to triple by 2050.”
At the Earthwatch RGS discussion, Dr. Glen Reynolds acknowledged the necessity of compromise to find a way forward: “No government can maintain all of its natural resources as pristine—it’s not going to happen.” But, he noted, the consequences of rampant uncontrolled development would be catastrophic. “So our research is looking to contribute in a space where you can have your cake and at least eat some of it.”
This balance means, as he wrote in The Guardian, addressing “core questions” about how to make the palm oil industry more sustainable: “Given that palm oil only grows in inherently biodiverse regions, what land (forested or otherwise) can and should be developed? And how can we plan new plantations for better protection of biodiversity, minimising the loss of carbon and other ecological impacts?”
How the Industry is Addressing Tough Questions
Investors and consumers have become more aware of sustainability and increasingly demand higher standards, said Leela Barrock of Sime Darby, a Malaysia-based company that supplies about six percent of the world’s palm oil. That demand has made sustainability an important goal for her company: “We decided six years ago that we would go for 100 percent certification. Today—and this has not been reported—we are 96 percent certified sustainable palm oil.”
What does it mean to be “certified sustainable”? Darrell Webber of the nonprofit Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which set the industry standards for sustainability, explained: producers must cultivate oil palms without destroying any primary (first-growth) forest or clearing the habitat of any rare, endangered, or threatened species. They must also farm legally and with the consent of the local community.
These requirements increase the cost of doing business for producers, and haven’t changed the way the most of the product is made. Barrock reported that about 42 million acres of land, more than the entire size of the state of Florida, are used for oil palm production to produce 60 million tons of palm oil; just 16 percent of that product is classified as RSPO certified.
Some would argue, though, that the industry is worth supporting despite its environmental hazards. Webber made this case at the RGS event: “No government could have brought rural development in a more efficient manner than the palm oil sector,” he said. Owing to the “economic life cycle” of the plant, which is about 25 years, it allows for a more long-term investment than plants that only deliver profits once a year: “You build roads, schools, hospitals, put in electricity. Very different from large-scale agriculture based on annual crops.”
Consumers Face Confusion When Deciding What to Buy
Currently, it’s hard to even know if palm oil is in a product, much less if it’s produced sustainably. In many countries, it is legal to list palm oil as vegetable oil instead of naming it outright. This will change later this year in the EU, said Webber, but the ingredient list would still not contain a sustainable classification. Many companies do list their sustainability credentials online, he said.
Some environmental organizations argue that buying sustainable isn’t enough. The WWF, which helped found the RSPO in 2005, concluded in a 2013 analysis of RSPO member producers that only “a handful are making adequate progress on the road to 100% RSPO compliance.” In other words, even RSPO certification doesn’t guarantee you’re getting a product that doesn’t harm the environment.
In short, there is no simple answer. The conversation about the costs and benefits of palm oil production is far from over. Dr. Reynolds concluded the RGS discussion by offering a principle for moving forward: governments, industry, and policymakers must “swim behind” science as they make decisions about how to produce and regulate this controversial crop.
Want to help conserve one of the most species-rich rainforests on the planet? Join Climate and Landscape Change in Borneo’s Rainforest.
Earthwatch also empowers businesses to make better decisions for a more sustainable environment. The Royal Geographic Society Earthwatch lecture series is kindly supported by the Mitsubishi Corporation for Europe and Africa.