You are contributing everyday for mass deforestation in tropical forests – and probably don’t even know it.
Probably it is not the first time you hear this name and won’t be the last. This edible vegetable oil has been in the center of multiple controversies and NGO-lead campaigns due to its direct impact to environmental disasters such as mass deforestation of tropical forests in Southeast Asia, loss of biodiversity, emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) to the atmosphere and water and air pollution. Its unique characteristics, allied to the productivity of its crops (higher than any other vegetable oil) and price, make it an attractive choice for many industries and products such as food, cosmetics, biofuels and others. Meanwhile there are more than 15 million hectares of palm oil plantations worldwide, at the expense of the most biodiverse places on earth- tropical rainforests.
Palm Oil on your Shopping List
According to WWF, palm oil can be found in close to half of the packaged and/or processed items you find in the supermarket shelves. It is on those crispy chips or creamy cookies that you crave for. You can find it on chocolate, ice cream, cereals, bakery, pizza and generally in any kind of snack you can think of: Oreos, Snickers, Milka, Nutella, Ben & Jerry’s or the famous Mc Donald’s’ ice creams, you name it. This vegetable oil is also widely used in cosmetic and personal care products with 70% of the new 11700 cosmetic products in 2014 containing palm oil. Avoiding palm oil on cosmetic products is nearly impossible since the ingredient list may not name palm oil itself but instead its more than 200 derivatives. You can check a compilation of the alternative names for palm oil, put together by the Orangutang alliance, here.
But why palm oil instead of alternative crop-based oils? The popularity of palm oil among multiple industries derives mainly from its physical characteristics and productivity of its harvests which also contributes for the cheapest price among other vegetable crops.
Its semi-solid composition at room temperature, with a melting point that lies between 33ºC and 39ºC, exempts artificial hardening via hydrogenation which creates trans-fats, considered unhealthy and with strict incorporation limits in many markets, naming Denmark and the US. It is also resistant to oxidation and so enables a longer shelf-life, and odourless and colourless not altering the products’ characteristics. The crispy, crunchy and melt-in-the-mouth properties highly depend on palm oil as an ingredient.
But the attractiveness of palm oil relies on more than its optimal properties: the world relies on palm oil to satisfy growing global demand for vegetable oil. Because of higher yield per hectare, the land needed for palm oil plantations is lower than that of competing crops for producing the same amount of product and requires a lower amount of pesticides. Producing the same quantity of oil by any other alternative would require about 2-5 times the amount of land.
More than in your shopping cart, it is in your car!
This first sentence may surprise you since palm oil’s visibility on media channels is mainly linked to food or cosmetic industries’ abuses. Nevertheless, and especially if you are a European citizen, you may consider looking more to your car tank than to your shopping cart.
Among all high-income regions, the EU is the third largest importer of palm oil and figures in the Top 10 of all regions importing the product. However, more than half of the quantity imported is used not in food or packaged products but directly in the production of biofuels, particularly biodiesel!
Biodiesel is a biological-based fuel derived mainly from crop-based oils as soybean, sunflower, rapeseed, corn and of course palm. This renewable fuel can either be blended with regular diesel or completely replace it. The run for crop-based fuels in Europe began around 2009 when the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) was adopted. By setting the target of mandatory renewable energy sources in the transport sector to 10% in 2020, Brussels created incentives and subsidies for the exploration and use of biofuels. The aim of this policy was to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels and the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) associated with the transport sector.
Yet, there was one problem that the European legislators hadn’t considered: Indirect land-use change (ILUC). The increase in demand and production of crop-based biofuels requires expansion of agricultural land to cultivate these crops- since most cultivated land is already being used to supply food for people and livestock. This expansion is done into forests, grasslands, peatlands, wetlands and other carbon-rich ecosystems. Not only does the conversion of these soils into cultivated lands causes deforestation and drainage of rich ecosystems, but also it is responsible for the release of tons of GHGs into the atmosphere from removing the vegetation and cultivating the soil. This problem is particularly protuberant regarding palm oil: tropical forests store around 46% of all the world’s living terrestrial carbon. Depending on which land is converted the payback time- the amount of time it takes to achieve a net-reduction in GHG emissions, from the use of biofuel instead of fossil fuels- can vary from a decade when we are talking about degraded grassland to hundreds of years if the original land use was a peatland.
Knowing Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea (biggest producers in palm oil industry) support some of the most extensive tropical peatlands in the world, covering around 27.1 million hectares, you can evaluate the proportion of the problem. If land is cleared by fire the payback time can increase in around 18 years.
According to the NGO Transport & Environment (TE), ILUC emissions were not taken into account when designing the RED and these may lead to higher GHG emissions than the fuels they came to replace, when considering the whole life-cycle emissions. On average, can be read on the TE’s page, “EU food-based biodiesel will lead to around 80% higher emissions than the fossil diesel it replaces by 2020”. This is what happens with biodiesel made from vegetable oils (rapeseed, palm oil, soy and sunflower). It is worth noticing, though, that the EU RED excluded biofuels derived from previously forested land from counting towards the renewable energy targets and related incentives.
After signaling several times its intentions to withdraw support (both political and financial) for food-based fuels, in 2016, the European Commission published a proposal for a modified Renewable Energy Directive, known as RED II, to be enforced in the period between 2021 and 2030, with the final text adopted in June 2018. This recast removes the support from high emitting biofuels (as those based in palm oil) until the beginning of 2030 (some exemptions remaining) and focuses EU support on second generation fuels, like those produced from residues and waste, or renewable electricity. TE, sustainable-lead NGO, hits us with impressive numbers: a plantation the size of a football pitch can power 2.4 cars in one year while the same land covered with solar panels powers 260 electric cars.
The Real Impact of Palm Oil
Palm oil grows predominantly within a 5-10º belt from the Equator, with Indonesia (1st) and Malaysia (2nd) dominating the market with close to 90% of global output and remaining the major producers for the foreseeable future. This few Southeast Asian islands harbour some of the most biodiverse tropical forests on earth1. Since 1989 to the beginning of the new century, the area covered by oil palms in Indonesia more than tripled and the country now bears over 6 million hectares of oil palm plantations (15 million hectares worldwide). Many times, this expansion is done at the expense of the biodiverse-rich lowland rainforests: remote sensing studies of a subset of plantations in 20 countries showed that 45% of oil palm plantations in Southeast Asia came from areas that were forests in 1989- the EU alone was estimated to be the cause of 0.9 million hectares of deforestation through its imports of palm oil between 1980 and 2000.
Land conversion of forests, wetlands and peatlands, to name a few, result in the loss of the habitat of endogenous species posing serious extinction threats to the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros, elephants, bird of paradise and ,the face of the fight against palm oil, Orangutans. Palm oil production has caused the orangutan population to lose 90 percent of its natural habitat, according to estimates, leading to 50,000 orangutans’ deaths in the past two decades alone. Studies have shown that palm oil plantations compared to initial forests harbour only around 28%-32% of primary forest species, compared to selectively logged forests 30 years ago which held around 73-75%.
Another environmental threats arising from these palm plantations include air pollution, GHGs and climate change due to the release of gases during land conversion, water pollution and soil erosion.
Should we Boycott Palm Oil?
Multiple entities like WWF, Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS) and the Word Economic Forum warn for the risks and ineffectiveness of boycotting palm oil. Being the highest yielding crop on the market, it requires less land than any equivalent vegetable oil crop. Palm oil supplies 35% of the world’s vegetable oil demand in just 10% of the land. In this sense, boycotting palm oil and looking for other alternatives will basically shift the problem to other parts of the world and threaten other habitats and species.
This struck me particularly hard, as my efforts to actively avoid and refuse palm-oil products in my daily diet amounts to this date to around three years. Moreover, it also seemed counterintuitive that doing nothing to stop mass deforestation and loss of biodiversity in tropical forests could be better than doing something. The answer lies in the middle: through the consumption of exclusively sustainable palm oil we can demand food, cosmetics and biofuel industries to act as soon as possible to assure a sustainable exploration of the vegetable oil, regarding deforestation, biodiversity, land conversion and human and labour rights.
There are four main sustainable palm oil certification schemes: the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC), the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) and the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) scheme. According to a study conducted for the EU in 2016, “the RSPO and ISCC schemes have the most robust processes around verification, certification, accreditation, and supply chain certification, ISPO the least, with MSPO intermediate.”
The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, RSPO, remains the most prominent certification scheme for uses other than biofuel. It first was founded in 2004 by WWF and other major enterprises, including Unilever and counts with the membership of 4871 organizations as of today. The board includes representatives from growers, traders, manufacturers and retailers, social and environmental NGOs, banks and investors.
The principles and criteria from RSPO go beyond compliance with laws and regulations and are regarded to be clearly explained with indicators and guidance. Nevertheless, concerning deforestation and peatland development the scheme leaves a degree of flexibility and uncertainty, therefore still facing several criticisms.
Since its foundation, the RSPO has managed a slow but steady uptake, which now certifies 19% of the total global palm oil supply. However, only around half is sold as certified, the rest being sold onto the general market due to limited demand for certified material from its major consumers: low-income countries such as India and China.
To access a table comparing all four certification schemes on principles and criteria (P&C)- page 129 and 130- and a comprehensive document on the palm oil industry directed for the EU in 2016, click here.
1 Indonesia, for example, covers just 1.3% of the globe’s land surface, yet its forests are home to around 10% of all species of flowering plants, 17% of all species of birds, 12% of all species of mammals, 16% of all species of reptiles, and 16% of all species of amphibians.
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