Can palm oil be sustainable?
Posted on 11th May 2020 at 20:17
Can palm oil be sustainable?
The answer is probably not. Not on the current evidence of what we are seeing it the world and especially in the palm oil producing nations. Deforestation is rife and this product has become so important to the economies of these nations that authorities are turning blind eyes to the devastation of their environment.
Palm oil is produced mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia, with these two countries dominating the industry and producing 84% of the world’s supply. Indonesia and Malaysia are also part owners along with Brunei of the island of Borneo, one of the worlds most beautiful and important natural habitats, home to the orang-utan and many other unique species.
From the year 1990 to 2008, palm oil production has been responsible for 8% of global deforestation. In Indonesia, the largest producer of palm oil, producing around 50% of the world’s palm oil; this equates to an area the size of Northumberland being lost every year to palm oil production in Indonesia.
When you add all of this up from 1990 to 2016 you are talking about an area the size of Bangladesh. The worrying thing is that this is only 8% of deforestation globally.
In 2004, the palm oil industry set up the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) with the aim of increasing the amount of sustainable produced palm oil and reducing the unsustainable practices of deforestation and loss of animal habitat. There are currently 193 critically endangered animals which are threatened by the palm oil industry.
The RSPO was set up by large players in the palm oil industry from producers of the oil and the largest customers. Currently only 19% of the palm oil produced is sustainable, and the organisation has been running for 16 years. That’s quite a poor statistic.
The board of the RSPO is made up of oil palm growers, processors and traders, consumer goods producers, retailers, bankers and investors and NGO’s. The majority of the board have a financial interest with only 2 seats on the board dedicated to environmental NGO’s.
Even the social and developmental NGO’s with 2 seats on the board will be invested in the success of the palm oil industry due to the socials and developmental issues in the largely poor countries that produce this cheap commodity.
How can palm oil be sustainable?
If these are the people who are running the RSPO then I don’t hold out much hope for palm oil being sustainable. The people running this organisation designates who produces palm and how they produce it are directly invested in keeping the price of this commodity cheap and bolstering their own profits.
How can real progress be made when the industry is effectively self regulating itself and with retailers, bankers and investors based on the board? Surely it can only be a recipe for disaster.
The RSPO is an organisation which was set up to stop the deforestation of natural habitats and make palm oil more sustainable. It only banned its members from clearing more areas of forest for palm oil plantations in 2018, 14 years after setting up and issuing thousands of certificates of sustainability to producers and retailers.
In 2015 Indonesia had a major crisis, with forest fires mainly attributed to palm oil production. In 2019 the fires returned and were found to be on the land of RSPO members 75% of the time. It’s clearly not working; the whole premise of sustainable palm oil is a mirage, completely fake and just a clever marketing scam.
Another reason to doubt the sustainability of palm oil is the majority of producers are based in countries which are high up on the corruption index which dictates how corrupt a country is. Countries like New Zealand, Finland, Denmark and Switzerland regularly top the list for the least corruption.
Palm oil producers are not bottom of the list, but they are nowhere near the top. High levels of corruption in these countries, added to lack of infrastructure to check where produce is coming from is evidence enough for us to doubt the amount of palm oil produced sustainably is well below 19%.
In 2010, some of the world’s largest companies promised to protect forests and clean up the industry by the year 2020. That year is now here and somewhere between diddly squat and nothing has happened to change.
Now here’s a question to ask: why would they change? Nobody with authority is challenging them. But governments in these countries know they need the palm oil industry as it is making them richer and in turn pulling their citizens from poverty, even if it’s in an ethically wrong way. Catch 22 or what?
Here's how we think palm oil can be sustainable.
Firstly it needs an independent governing body which will be able to certify whether palm oil produced is sustainable. This governing body needs to be well funded and not have a vested interest in the palm oil industry. Also the countries that produce it would have to sign up to being fully sustainable within a timeframe.
Countries that produce palm oil should set up a scheme, similar to that in the United Kingdom, where farmers leave a section of land around the crops to grow wild. This would aid in stopping poachers and allow a reclaim of land for indigenous creatures. Farmers should be paid a subsidy for this.
Reducing demand globally, there are people out there like us, we are shouting as loud as we can, but the only way we can reduce demand is to have a large group of people vote with their feet. If you stop buying products with palm oil in, the companies that produce it will change it. We've seen a big switch in companies using more sustainable packaging, it would be exactly the same for palm oil.
Promotion of eco-tourism. If it was more profitable for a farmer to convert his farm into a habitat for orang-utans and other indigenous wildlife, you can bet your bottom dollar he would do it.
We think these steps would make palm oil a lot more sustainable. The key though is to cut out self regulation. It doesn't work. Ever. Not for banks. Not for industry. Not for palm oil.
In summary to this article, palm oil is almost impossible to make sustainable, there are a huge amount of factors going against it becoming completely sustainable, including a growing population with a demand for cheap products.
Add this to the self regulation from highly invested parties and the prospect of sustainable palm oil is probably further from reach than when the RSPO was set up in 2004.
Here at Seatree Cosmetics we recommend reducing your demand for palm oil products in foods, biofuels and cosmetics.
When companies notice a reduction in demand, they reduce production, it’s really quite simple. I would liken it to the Dutch Tulip bubble, if we can reduce our demand for it then production and deforestation will reduce dramatically.
This is what we need to do - reduce our demand for these cheap consumer goods which are full of palm oil which has been proven to be bad for health as it is high in saturated fats and really bad for skin as it is incredibly drying.
Finally the other by-products of palm oil are really bad for skin and the environment, with the oleochemical derived from palm oil, sodium lauryl sulphate and its derivatives causing mass skin irritation in most over the counter soaps, shampoos, toothpastes, hand washes and shower gels exacerbating dry skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.
Biofuels of which are palm oil derived are also polluting the EU but not currently the UK. The EU currently uses 4 million tonnes of palm oil derived bio fuel and the trend is the use is only going up. We need to drastically reduce our use of this environmental fiend!
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