March 3, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Why is palm oil production so unsustainable, and who’s to blame?

Palm oil. It’s everywhere. In our shampoos, toothpastes, detergents and spreads, bread and biscuits and – well, the list goes on. Estimated to be in 50% of all supermarket products, its cultivation over the past twenty years has caused mass deforestation, with serious consequences for biodiversity, endangered species, greenhouse gas emissions and indigenous communities – but it needn’t be this way. Palm oil has the potential to be sustainable; six to ten times more of it can be harvested per hectare of land than competing oils such as corn, soya and olive. And “deforestation-free palm oil is totally possible,” says Joss Lyons-White, conservation scientist at Imperial College London.

So why is palm oil production so unsustainable, and who’s to blame? Greenpeace, and other NGOs, have mounted sustained campaigns on big companies, spreading the messaging and compelling corporate action. “Public shaming” tactics threaten reputational damage, and many major brands, such as Unilever, have subsequently adopted zero deforestation commitments. However, providing a landscape where these commitments can be genuinely realised is incredibly complex.

“It seems like they [big companies] have all the power,” says Lyons-White, “but they aren’t the only piece of the puzzle.” He continues: “ [Public] shaming is an important tool, but its impact is predicated on the subject of that shaming being able to do something about it. That, for me, is a question that needs to be resolved.”

David Dellatore, Programme Manager at the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, agrees. “It is entirely possible that a company policy of ‘zero deforestation’ palm oil may be breached [through] no fault of their own,” he says.

Shifting the industry to a more sustainable model requires engagement with other stakeholders, and the adoption of universally acknowledged terminology. Organisations, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), are trying to improve communication and collaboration at various stages of manufacture.

RSPO certification covers forest of ‘high conservation value’ (HCV) and is shown to reduce virgin forest loss. However, not all forests that have conservation value fall under its remit, for example those that have been re-grown following clearance. Therefore, RSPO certification does not currently guarantee completely deforestation-free palm oil. To overcome this problem, the RSPO are refining their strategy to take into account high carbon stock (HCS) forests, aiming to expand their certification to more effectively distinguish between viable natural forests and degraded land that could be used for sustainable palm oil plantations.

“There is a problem [of] conflicting world views and conflicting interests,” says Lyons-White. “Balancing socio-economic development with the need to conserve biodiversity is a common problem in all areas of conservation.” For some smallholders ‘deforestation’ means “ensuring that they’re going to be able to send their kids to school, or put food on the table. It’s not as straightforward as ‘deforestation is a problem’ – even defining deforestation is not as simple as it sounds.”

Paulina Villalpando, Executive Director of the HCV Network, which helps companies identify, manage and monitor high conservation values effectively, emphasises the importance of a holistic approach:

“If we really want to achieve no deforestation then we have to provide solutions for small farmers and smallholders…to make sure that all along the supply chain everyone is benefitted.”

Villalpando highlights that in order to achieve “substantial change” governments need to implement commitments on a national scale. She continues:

“In Latin America for example, land use planning was done about 50-60 years ago, when the environmental crisis was less evident…there would be less of a need to have no deforestation campaigns if governments rethought their land use allocation to consider the protection of remaining forests and areas crucial for biodiversity and indigenous peoples.”

Lyons-White agrees that governments “hold the key” to enabling the realisation of deforestation-free commitments, particularly in navigating confusion over land tenure. “There is sufficient land to expand palm oil production without encroaching on forests. The problem is that the political contexts in which zero deforestation commitments are implemented make it very difficult to guarantee deforestation-free palm oil.” Huge markets for unsustainable palm oil in China and India also exacerbate the issue.

He emphasises that the situation on the ground differs between countries; this isn’t a question with a one-size-fits-all solution. Indonesia, for example, has available degraded land, which could be used to plant oil palm to sufficiently meet global demand. Many West African countries, however, “are highly forested, so there’s very little land left for development if you implement a strict ‘zero-deforestation’ policy there to the letter.”

Dellatore emphasises that the problem stems not from the crop itself, but from how it is produced. The industry needs to move away from “monoculture plantation” towards carefully considered spatial planning to determine which areas are best for agricultural development. Law enforcement is also essential in controlling irresponsible land development. “The good news is that theoretically it’s not that difficult, and we have the knowledge and ability to enact this tomorrow! All it would take is the will of governments to do so.”

How can consumers navigate this labyrinthine terrain when they’re faced with supermarket shelves packed with palm oil infused products? “If you buy RSPO-certified palm oil then you can send a market signal that sustainable production has value and that can change producer practices on the ground,” says Lyons-White. “It’s a hotly contested point, but the point is to be in the debate, rather than out of it.”

Claudia Cannon is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London

Banner Image: Palm oil production, Flickr.