Is Palm Oil Sustainable, Eco Friendly Or Ethical?

In the guide below, we discuss how sustainable, eco friendly and ethical palm oil might be.

We do this by discussing how and where palm oil is grown and sourced, along with outlining other relevant information.

 

Summary – Is Palm Oil Sustainable, Eco Friendly, Or Ethical?

Use Of Palm Oil Across Society

Palm oil has a number of uses across society, which we list in the guide below

 

Potential Impact Of Palm Oil On The Environment, Forests & Wildlife

Deforestation, loss of biodiversity, loss of wildlife habitats, threatening individual species of wildlife (such as orangutans), and impact on greenhouse gas emissions and a changing climate are impacts of palm oil production on the environment, forests, and wildlife

 

Potential Impact Of Palm Oil On People

Worker’s rights issues, along with both potential negative and positive effects on different groups of people (like local communities living near forests and palm oil plantations) can arise from palm oil production

 

Potential Impact Of Palm Oil On Society

Palm oil can be a useful ingredient, and can also be useful in different products across society

The palm oil industry is also a key contributor to economies amongst vegetable fats and oils

There is however some debate amongst different groups as to whether palm oil produced for biofuel like biodiesel compromises and takes away from food production, and whether this impacts food supply to, and nutrition for developing countries 

 

Is Palm Oil Sustainable Or Eco Friendly?

Each palm oil supply and production chain might have different variables to consider

There can be circumstances under which palm oil is far less sustainable and eco friendly

And, there can be circumstances where is can be more sustainable and eco friendly

We go through some of the factors that might impact sustainability and eco friendliness in the guide below

An important point to make when it comes to palm oil is that although it has several environmental concerns in some instances, it might use less land and water than the cultivation of some other vegetable oil crops, and might also have better yield per unit of land too

Not only might it use resources more efficiently, but, this increased efficiency and productivity may lead to economic benefits, and benefits for palm oil farmers (including small farmers working smaller plots of land and smaller plantations)

So, it might be fair to say that palm oil can have several tradeoffs

 

Is Palm Oil Ethical?

Similar to sustainability and eco friendliness, palm oil production can be either more ethical, or less ethical depending on how it sourced and produced

The values of the individual also matter

We go into more detail about ethics in the guide below

 

How To Know If Palm Oil Is More Sustainable, Eco Friendly & Ethical

In the guide below, we list several points to consider when trying to assess if palm oil products are more sustainable, eco friendly and ethical

 

Better Practices In The Palm Oil Industry

In the guide below, we list several things that might have been implemented to try to improve practices and processes in the palm oil industry

 

Nutrition & Health Impact Of Palm Oil

The nutrition and health impact of palm oil food and beverage products for humans is outside the scope of this guide, but is also a consideration for palm oil overall

 

Potential Alternatives To Palm Oil

We list some potential alternatives to palm oil in the guide below

 

What Is Palm Oil, & Where Does It Come From?

Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil/vegetable fat

It comes from the fruit of oil palm trees, and, there’s two main species of palm trees used

 

What Is Palm Oil Used For?

Some of the main uses for palm oil include:

– Cooking (such as for cooking oil)

– Food products (like margarine, and processed foods)

– Detergents, and cleaning products

– Personal care (soaps, shampoos) and cosmetics products

– Biomass and biofuel (such as biodiesel)

 

Potential Impact Of Palm Oil On The Environment, Forests, & Animals

Potential environmental issues that palm oil products may contribute to might include:

Deforestation

Land with forest and trees have been cleared and in some cases continue to be cleared, in order to convert the land use to agricultural land for growing oil palm trees (on palm oil plantations)

 

wikipedia.org indicates that this has particularly been the case in Indonesia and Malaysia, and ‘slash and burn techniques are still used to create new plantations across palm oil producing countries … [with one example being as recently as 2019 in Indonesia]’

 

worldwildlife.org also indicates that ‘Around 90% of the world’s oil palm trees are grown on a few islands in Malaysia and Indonesia [and in these places …] there is a direct relationship between the growth of oil palm estates and deforestation.

 

– Other Issues Caused By Deforestation

As a result of deforestation, biodiversity loss, wildlife habitat loss, and threatening of species of wildlife can happen

Another issue that is compounded by deforestation might be greenhouse gas emissions and a changing climate. This might be caused by removing forests, trees and vegetation, that absorb carbon, and replacing these ecosystems with gas emitting operations

 

worldwildlife.org also indicates that ‘Around 90% of the world’s oil palm trees are grown on a few islands in Malaysia and Indonesia – islands with the most biodiverse tropical forests found on Earth … [and deforestation has been an issue in these regions]’

 

wikipedia.org indicates that:

… oil-palm monocultures’ have impacted regions of Indonesia and Malaysia, and they also indicate that Cameroon had a production project halted because the project was in a ‘… sensitive region for biodiversity

[And] Use of palm oil as biodiesel generates three times the carbon emissions as using fossil fuel

 

Potential Impact Of Palm Oil On People

Potential social issues that palm oil products may contribute to might include:

– Worker’s Rights Issues

There have been reports of some oil palm tree operations being linked to worker’s right issues over the years.

wikipedia.org indicates that the growth of some oil palms ‘… has been cited as a factor in social problems due to allegations of human rights violations among growers’, and they also list some other potential problems related to fast growing palm oil production in some regions, such as the utilisation of illegal immigrants, using hazardous pesticides, and more

 

– Negative Impact On Local Communities 

The deforestation or clearing of whole forests or parts of forests may have a range of negative impacts on local communities, such as impacting livelihood (ability to earn an income in some ways), culture, and in some instances, displacing local communities (depending on how reliant they are on the forest and surrounding land)

Local communities may also lose full or partial access to land and other resources when new oil palm tree plantations are established

There can also be land ownership disputes when new oil palm tree plantations are established, and some reports indicate that due to the financial incentive involved with palm oil plantations, there can be oversight or lack of protection for individuals and small communities in this instance

 

– Positive Benefits For Local Communities

There might be positive benefits for people in addition to negative effects of palm oil plantations being established

These benefits can range from employment opportunities, lifting people out of poverty, and improving the overall local economy and community (in terms of quality of life)

 

wikipedia.org for example lists a range of benefits for local communities:

Palm oil production provides employment opportunities, and has been shown to improve infrastructure, social services and reduce poverty

Some social initiatives use palm oil cultivation as part of poverty alleviation strategies [which can result in improved incomes and diets of local populations, and can support rural development]

[Hundreds of thousands of farmers on small landholdings are employed from palm plantations and extraction mills in Thailand.]

‘… palm oil and other crops provide a productive alternative [in Colombia] for illegal crops, like coca’

 

spott.org lists more potential benefits of palm oil in their report

 

Potential Impact Of Palm Oil On Society

Apart from the the impacts listed above, palm oil might have two main impacts on society as a whole:

– Provide Useful Products

Palm oil has a number of useful applications across a range of uses and products.

 

– Contribute To The Economy

The palm oil industry makes a significant contribution to the economy amongst oil and fat products.

wikipedia.org for example mentions that: ‘[In Kenya, edible oils like palm oil are an important cash crop]’

 

– Food vs Fuel Debate

wikipedia.org mentions that there is some debate over whether palm oil grown for biofuel (and biodiesel) is made a priority over growing food on the land that is used for oil palm trees

This brings into question whether there are flow on effects for the food supply and nutrition in developing nations

Some reports indicate that this is not an issue though

 

Is Palm Oil Sustainable Or Eco Friendly?

It ultimately depends on how the palm oil is sourced/grown, and produced.

Depending on the variables to do with production, some supply chains and palm oil products are more sustainable and eco friendly than others.

To give a general answer, some palm oil production might have a history of having issues do do with deforestation, biodiversity and wildlife habitat loss, and threatening some species of wildlife

However, palm oil production may have yield, productivity and efficiency benefits that some other vegetables oil crops don’t have

 

Factors That Might Impact The Sustainability & Eco Friendliness Of Palm Oil

– Whether the land used to grow oil palm trees involved clearing of forest and trees at any point, and how much forest and trees was/were cleared

– How much biodiversity was lost in any clearing of land

– How much wildlife habitat was lost in any clearing of land

– Whether any specific wildlife species were threatened during the clearing of land

– How much carbon storage and oxygen production was lost in the clearing of forests and land

– Total greenhouse gas emissions from any new palm oil plantations

– How efficient new palm oil plantations are in terms of yield per unit of land, and overall productivity and efficiency, as this impacts resource usage and overall sustainability footprint

– Specifically how much land and water palm oil plantations use

– Whether there was loss of any other environmental value contained in cleared forests and trees

– How oil palm tree plantations compare to other crops that could be grown in their place as an alternative (we list some of these alternatives elsewhere in this guide)

 

Where Most Palm Oil Is Produced Right Now (Top Producing Countries)

From wikipedia.org:

Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil … [with Malaysia in second, Nigeria third, and Thailand another large producer of crude palm oil]

 

Potential Sustainability & Environmental Concerns With Current Palm Oil Production

We explained above in this guide that countries like Indonesia might have had some recent issues with slash and burn deforestation.

It also appears that current production still has concerns with other sustainability indicators too.

 

wikipedia.org also mentions that ‘In 2019 … eight global brands involved in palm oil extraction in the Leuser Ecosystem [were surveyed] and said that none was performing adequately in avoiding “conflict palm oil” [. Additionally, another scorecard indicated only] 15 out of 173 companies as performing well’

 

Largest Consumers Of Palm Oil

Looking at the largest consumers of palm oil might be one way to focus in on countries that have the most potential to hold suppliers and producers accountable for more sustainable palm oil production.

 

India, China, Pakistan, the European Union and the United States are the primary importers of Malaysian palm oil products [and Malaysia is the world’s largest exporter] (wikipedia.org)

 

The Efficiency, Productivity & Yield Of Growing Oil Palm Trees

The efficiency, productivity and yield of palm oil compared to other vegetable oil crops might be far better across some indicators, and there might be flow on benefits from this.

This might be weighed up against the potential environmental concerns of palm oil production when assessing overall sustainability.

 

From wikipedia.org:

‘… palm oil is much more efficient than other oils in terms of land and water usage, however deforestation causes more biodiversity loss than switching to other oils’

[Palm oil can use up to one ninth of the land in terms of yield compared to other vegetable oils, which may lead to more forest and biodiversity loss if more forests have to be cleared on a per unit basis, but not necessarily in total, depending on total production of palm oil]

In terms of oil yield, a palm plantation is 10 times more productive than soybean, sunflower or rapeseed cultivation because the palm fruit and kernel both provide usable oil [and this leads to far more oil per hectare than sunflower, soybean or peanut]

[wikipedia also mentions though that palm oil crop yields differ between different countries]

[In the future, lab grown microbes may help increased higher yields per unit of land at similar prices]

[The productivity of palm oil compared to other vegetable oils might give it a strong position in the vegetable oil market]

 

chinadialogue.net and asianagri.com provide more information on the yield and efficiency of palm oil crops compared to other crops

 

Examples Of How Palm Oil Might Be More Sustainable & Eco Friendly In Some Instances

There might be instances where the sustainability of palm oil has improved, or palm oil can be produced more sustainably

Some of these examples might include:

 

– Production Of Palm Oil In Malaysia

[In the past, Malaysia responded to concerns about deforestation by pledging] to limit the expansion of palm oil plantations by retaining a minimum of half the nation’s land as forest cover’ (wikipedia.org)

 

– Production Of Palm Oil On Colombia

From wikipedia.org: ‘[One study indicates that] Colombia has the potential to produce sustainable palm oil without causing deforestation.’

 

– Production Of Palm Oil In Ecuador

From wikipedia.org: ‘Ecuador aims to help palm oil producers switch to sustainable methods and achieve RSPO certification under initiatives to develop greener industries’

 

– Production Of Palm Oil In Kenya

wikipedia.org indicates that ‘[Palm oil might have] environmental benefits [in Kenya] because it does not compete against food crops of native vegetation and it provides stabilisation for the soil’

 

Forecasted Future Production Of Palm Oil

It might be important to consider future production of palm oil, as this could compound existing issues. 

It appears as though some forecasts predict an increase in production.

 

[Annual production of palm oil is projected to increased from] 73.5 million metric tons [in 2018-19, to] 240 million metric tons by 2050 (wikipedia.org)

 

Is Palm Oil Ethical?

Again, it depends on how the palm oil is sourced and produced, and the factors and variables involved.

Whether palm oil is ethical or not also depends on the values of the individual.

Sustainability and eco friendliness might be considered alongside the impact of palm oil on people and society when assessing overall ethics of production.

In addition to sustainability and eco friendliness, factors that might impact the ethics of palm oil might include:

– Impact on worker’s rights throughout the supply and production chains

– Impact on local communities that live around forests and cleared land, or around the area where oil palm plantations are established

– Whether growing oil palm trees for the purposes of biofuel impacts food production, and whether this impacts the food supply and nutrition in any countries

– Impact of oil palm tree plantations on the economy and business owners, or those making an income from palm oil

– How people and society would benefit or lose opportunity if forests are left standing, or if other vegetable oil crops are grown

 

How To Know If Palm Oil Is More Sustainable, Eco Friendly Or Ethical

– Certification Programs

Some groups operate certification programs.

Palm oil products may receive certification, and this lets consumers know the product is made according to specific standards that are usually made available publicly for the consumer to read before purchasing the product

One example of international standards for sustainable palm oil production is the RSPO (Roundtable On Sustainable Palm Oil)

 

– Information On Company Websites

Palm oil product companies may also provide additional information on their website about how and where their products are sourced and produced

 

– Product Labels & Ingredients

Be aware that when looking at product labels and ingredients, palm oil ingredients may not always be clearly identified

As an example, wikipedia.org indicates that there’s more than ‘… 200 different names for [palm oil ingredients, or palm oil derived ingredients] and only 10% of them include the word palm’

 

Better Practices In The Palm Oil Industry

A few ways the palm oil industry might be improving over time might include:

– Some groups advocate for, or try to implement practices that improve the palm oil industry.

One example might be trying to create demand for palm oil products (such as certified products) that are produced with more sustainable processes.

 

– NDPE (No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation) policies

These are private mechanisms that aim to cut the direct link with deforestation for palm oil refineries.

wikipedia.org indicates these can be effective because these refineries have economic leverage over palm oil growers.

 

– Food label regulations and requirements

Places like Europe might require palm oil to be listed specifically (or the type of vegetable origin) as the vegetable fat used in products

 

Nutrition & Health Impact Of Palm Oil 

Separate to the other aspects of sustainability and ethics discussed above, there’s the nutrition and health impact of palm oil on humans to consider.

This is outside the scope of this guide.

 

Potential Alternatives To Palm Oil

Examples of other oils that can be alternatives to palm oil for some uses might include coconut, sunflower, soybean, or peanut.

 

 

Sources

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palm_oil

2. https://rspo.org/about

3. Various other ‘Better Meets Reality’ guides

4. https://www.worldwildlife.org/industries/palm-oil

5. https://www.spott.org/palm-oil-resource-archive/impacts/

6. https://chinadialogue.net/en/food/11627-palm-oil-the-pros-and-cons-of-a-controversial-commodity/

7. https://www.asianagri.com/page/media-publications/articles/the-benefits-of-palm-oil/

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