Iceland is Wrong: Making the Case for Palm Oil

Science and Technology

Photo credit: Evva

Christmas is coming. The shops are full of Christmas family packs and what is now the traditional start of the festive season for many, the release of the John Lewis Christmas advert, was just last week. The John Lewis advert may have become a staple of Christmas, but far more attention this year has been paid to the banned Iceland advert, a shortened version of a Greenpeace film entitled Rang-tan highlighting the impacts of producing palm oil on the environment.

Iceland is well-known for its environmental stance, pledging to cut palm oil out of all of its products by the end of this year. The advert ends with the emotive phrase: “Dedicated to the 25 orangutans we lose every day”. And, at face value, it does seem to have a point. Palm oil is the most commonly used vegetable oil with around 66 million tonnes produced each year and, between 1990 and 2008, palm oil production was responsible for 8 percent of the world’s deforestation, all of prime tropical rainforest.

Many would see this deforestation as an inexcusable crime, but the situation is not as simple as this. In pure numerical terms, palm oil is the highest yielding vegetable oil per hectare in the world, being 5 times more efficient than both rapeseed sunflower oils; up to 9 times more efficient than corn and soya. Palm oil provides a third of the world’s vegetable oil, from just 10% of the land used for all oil crops. This land area is 18.1 million hectares, or to put that into context, about the same size as England, Wales and Northern Ireland. So, if consumers still want to consume the products they currently do and reforest the land palm oil is on; wilderness 5 times the size of what is currently planted with palm oil needs to be ploughed up elsewhere. This would involve destroying countless other habitats in the process. Consumers currently demanding that palm oil be stopped need to also think about the alternatives and the other wild spaces which they are destroying in the process. Further, the alternatives need to be diverse enough to capture the range of uses of palm oil, and most of the ones on the market, such as using coconut oil instead of palm in cosmetics, toothpaste and washing up liquids, would require up to 10 times the tropical forest land of palm oil to grow!

It should also be noted that palm oil has not, yet, been selectively bred to the same extent as the other crops. It is estimated by crop scientists that a 5 to 10 times increase of yield is possible over the next decade or two, more if smallholders are able to club together into more efficient co-operative groups. If this happens then the land area needed for oil can be reduced, and the forest allowed to naturally expand.

Moreover, orangutans can survive in palm oil plantations as they can move through them between the forest reserves. Borneo is leading the way in this forest reserve project, aiming to connect all of its reserves into one giant “Heart of Borneo”. Projects such as this can increase connectivity between the large remaining areas of orang-utan habitat and stop inbreeding between isolated populations.

On the issue of economic development, there is a real benefit of palm oil. Palm oil is a cash crop and of great benefit to small holders as it can be grown efficiently on small areas of land. These people are often those most in need and as a cash crop it allows families to send their children to school. Oil palm produces fruit over 25 years, meaning plants are able to provide for farmers over the longer term. This long term nature means that palm oil allows rural development to take place, with communities able to invest in schools, roads and hospitals knowing they have an income. This rural development has occurred on a huge scale, with the palm oil industry now employing 4.5 million people and, through its economic safety, lifting most of those out of poverty. 

So is there a compromise that can be reached? Is there a way to buy palm oil but not support deforestation? Is there a way that we can support this development in some of the poorest part of the world? The answer to both of these questions is yes, with the creation of certification schemes such as that set up by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). 3.76 million hectares are now certified as sustainable, producing 19% of global palm oil. As of 15th November this year, this scheme has now approved a zero percent deforestation commitment, meaning that no new rainforest is allowed to be cut down at all. Major western companies are also starting to listen; with major brands such as Mondelez, Mars and Unilever all certifying 100% of their palm oil to RSPO standards. This means that to buy a Cadbury’s chocolate bar or some Pantene shampoo is not, actually, to support deforestation in Indonesia and the senseless slaughter of orangutans; instead it promotes, through certification and pledging to pay just that little bit more, development of communities in some of the poorest parts of the world. This reduction in poverty itself stops the hunting of orangutans and other charismatic species that live in their forests and national parks as it gives people money to buy food, send their children to school and improve their quality of life. 

So, this Christmas, please don’t boycott palm oil, boycott unsustainable palm oil. Instead of saying you want to lose more of our precious wilderness areas, instead choose to spend your money with those companies that have pledged to stop deforestation and improve the economic situation of some of the poorest communities in South East Asia, those palm oil producers who are RSPO certified. Let’s not make palm oil a taboo subject any more, instead let us consume safe in the knowledge that we are protecting our natural world at the same time.