Keep Palm and carry on: a win-win solution for the palm oil industry

Connect the dots: A bowl of porridge, a tub of chocolate ice cream, anti-dandruff shampoo, cherry blossom lipstick and lavender-scented washing powder. The answer is not my ‘shopping list for a quiet night in’. Well, not quite anyway. It is actually some of the things you can buy at your local grocer’s – that contain palm oil.

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(Source: Oats: Creative Commons, Chocolate: Creative Commons, Lipstick: Creative Commons)

It’s all about that (palm oil) base

Palm oil is a product of the fruit of the oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis) and is in half the packaged products that are shelved at a grocery store. It is the most ubiquitous vegetable oil due to its long shelf-life, versatility – where the Bank of England is even considering its use in the new £20 note –  and its low production cost, thanks to the oil palm tree’s superior yield to other vegetable oil products and the low labour costs of the tropical countries they are grown in.

The rocket-high demand for this ‘magic oil’ means an equally high demand for more palm oil plantations to supply the big companies who want their hands on it. When the billionaire big dogs come marching in, the heavy victims of their gluttonous power-wielding is always – the environment.

Production chart

The graph shows the exponential increase in palm oil production since the late 1990’s (Source: Mongabay)

Here are some facts.

The two largest palm-oil producing countries, Malaysia and Indonesia, cover almost 8 million hectares of land for palm oil, however these regions are also home to 11% of the tropical forests that are left in the world [1]. Furthermore, between 1990~2005, almost 60% of oil palm expansion occurred at the expense of converting virgin (old, undisturbed) and secondary (e.g. logged) forests which has led to serious biodiversity loss.

For example, the Leuser ecosystem (known as the ‘Last place on Earth’) in Sumatra, Indonesia, an area of just over 2.5 million hectares, houses 105 mammal and 386 bird species, many of which are endemic to the region.  This diversity-rich ecosystem has experienced a loss of more than 22,000 hectares of forest cover between January 2015 and April 2017, where there are fewer than 100 Sumatran rhinos and 1700 Sumatran elephants left in the wild – they depend on this low-land forestry for their survival.

A recent study also found that clear-cut land, from deforestation for palm oil in Indonesia, has increased temperatures of up to 10°C compared to the undisturbed forests within these regions. Not only does this affects the temperature-dependent animal and plant species that live within the canopies but it also makes Indonesia considerably more vulnerable to wildfires – a disaster that will have huge economic and environmental losses.


With all this in mind, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) decided to tackle this growing problem by forming the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2004. This group consisted of the large, international palm oil producers, buyers and a few NGOs including the WWF themselves to find a solution that fits both the WWF’s environmental standards, and the palm oil producers’ economic standards. What came from this special group was a certification system in 2007 which producers can obtain for their products if they followed a certain set of rules for sustainable palm oil production.


RSPO stamps their mark in palm oil history (Source: RSPO)

Sounds like a great idea, right? Consumers can see whether their product contains palm oil that has been produced in a sustainable manner and make a more informed decision in their day-to-day shopping, which can only mean good?

Well, yes. And no.

Certification of consumer products to highlight environmental and ethical standards in the production have had an impact on consumer choice such as Fairtrade. However, it is not all about the stamp, but what the producers have done to earn that stamp. The RSPO’s standards for ‘sustainable palm oil production’ whilst written with good intentions, lack clear definitions and leave open massive loopholes for large corporations to continue deforesting and ignoring the livelihoods of the local people. Not only that, producers can, in simple terms, ‘buy their way’ into being certified with fraudulent audits allowing them to continue their practices – after all, money makes the world go round

Don’t get aggro with agroforestry

So my solution to this problem? No, it’s not to avoid buying palm oil because as mentioned earlier, they are the most efficient producers of vegetable oil which means less land is required for their production than any other.

Recent studies into high-stearic sunflower oils [2] suggest this new product has greater yield of fatty acids (which is what makes palm oil so efficient), is healthier, and can be produced on both sides of the hemisphere, alleviating the need for tropical rainforests to be used for oil production. This is a great prospect for the future but as for now, to scale this up to mass-production levels and replace the current palm oil practices, is still not immediate enough for the change we need.


Can this sun voyeur be the future for vegetable oils? (Source: Creative Commons)

The more immediate and short- (and long-) term solution in my opinion, is agroforestry – a more sustainable use of agricultural land that integrates multiple crops in the same growing region. This practice increases heterogeneity (different and varied) of the habitat by integrating crops of different species with varying blooming seasons which has had a positive effect on the local biodiversity [3].

Although this practice may result in fewer oil palm trees (hence the aggro by producers), the trees in agroforestry have produced healthier and greater yield of palm oil due to the natural biodiversity such as nitrogen-fixing bacteria and other tree species nourishing the oil palm trees themselves [4].

The diversity of plants also allow ‘corridors’ for travelling animals which, the lack of them, have been one of the main threats for orangutans in Indonesia.

Microsoft Word - yjema_6707_Azhar et al. - Revised draft JEM

Difference between agroforestry (top left) and monoculture plantations (bottom right) (Source: Azhar et al., 2017 [5])

So despite the activities of so-called enviromentalists to stop palm oil production, I say; keep palm (cos we have no better choice at the moment), and carry on (finding solutions than just pointing out the problems).


[1] Koh, L. and Wilcove, D. (2008). Is oil palm agriculture really destroying tropical biodiversity?. Conservation letters, 1(2), pp.60-64.

[2] Garcés, R., Martínez-Force, E., Salas, J. and Bootello, M. (2012). Alternatives to tropical fats based on high-stearic sunflower oils. Lipid Technology, 24(3), pp.63-65.

[3] Bhagwat, S., Willis, K., Birks, H. and Whittaker, R. (2008). Agroforestry: a refuge for tropical biodiversity?. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 23(5), pp.261-267.

[4] Gérard, A., Wollni, M., Hölscher, D., Irawan, B., Sundawati, L., Teuscher, M. and Kreft, H. (2017). Oil-palm yields in diversified plantations: Initial results from a biodiversity enrichment experiment in Sumatra, Indonesia. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 240, pp.253-260.

[5] Azhar, B., Saadun, N., Prideaux, M. and Lindenmayer, D. (2017). The global palm oil sector must change to save biodiversity and improve food security in the tropics. Journal of Environmental Management, 203, pp.457-466.


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