Is There Such a Thing as ‘Sustainable Palm Oil’?

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Is sustainable palm oil nothing more than a myth? Back in 2010, some of the world’s biggest brands committed to a clean, sustainable palm oil industry. The goal should have been achieved by the end of 2020. Needless to say, it didn’t happen. In 2018, the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) made a much needed pledge to stop deforestation. However, in 2021, this couldn’t be further away from the truth. While deforestation did decrease slightly in 2020, it is still a longshot from achieving the targets set years ago. Despite the decrease, palm oil production still led to the destruction of an astonishing 38,000 hectares of rainforest in 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic must be accounted for when taking that into consideration. As global business slowed significantly, so did the demand for palm oil production. There is a possibility that the decrease in deforestation could be related to this, as well as local restrictions imposed to contain the virus spread. And if that’s the case, then the numbers could go up to pre-2020 levels again.

Read also our post: 30 million paid for illegal deforestation

According to a detailed study by Chain Reaction Research, 10 companies were responsible for a staggering 58% of the deforestation on palm oil concessions. These companies are part of the supply chains for some of the world’s biggest corporations. While the palm oil companies should definitely shoulder the blame, corporations on their supply list are just as guilty.

Before you grab a Slothino casino bonus and get on with your gaming session, let’s take a minute to talk about the problems involving sustainable palm oil.

Why Has Palm Oil Turned Into an Environmental Threat?

Palm oil is present in roughly 50% of the products you will find on a supermarket shelf. Cleaning products, cosmetics and obviously food are just some of them. That’s perfectly understandable – palm oil is cheap and extremely versatile. And this is where part of the problem lies.

Since palm oil is widely used in the industry, it naturally increases the demand. Indonesia and Malaysia are the world’s leading palm oil producers. The increase in demand means that these countries need to clear more land to make way for palm tree plantations. And given that Indonesia and Malaysia have large areas covered by primary rainforests, the result is an environmental disaster

One of the better known examples is the orangutan, having already been driven to the brink of extinction with three surviving species – all of which are restricted to Indonesia and Malaysia. Deforestation is a severe threat to the orangutan, resulting in significant losses for its natural habitat. The Sumatran orangutan in particular is listed as a critically endangered species, and there is little doubt that palm tree plantations are part of the reason.

Sumatran orangutan Greg Hume, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Problem With Sustainable Palm Oil

Dropping palm oil altogether would be the easiest solution. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. For starters, palm oil is a much better alternative for the industry. It is significantly cheaper compared to other common options, as palm oil production requires less land. Not only that, but it is also extremely versatile thanks to some of its properties. Its production is also the primary source of income for many families and communities. Not to mention that palm oil is also commonly used for cooking in some countries where it is widely available.

This is where sustainable palm oil comes in. The RSPO has a very clear plan for sustainable palm oil production. But while its guidelines are great, they have been loosely enforced. A significant number of RSPO concessions are located in deforested areas. And despite the no deforestation pledge, the numbers paint a different picture, as environmental destruction continues to happen inside the RSPO concessions.

Many reports over the last few years have linked brands carrying the RSPO certified sustainable palm oil seal to environmental disasters. These companies still carry out deforestation practices regularly, occasionally causing massive forest fires to clear way for palm tree plantations. Environmental organizations, such as Greenpeace, have accused the RSPO and its seal of being a con.

Is There a Path to Sustainable Palm Oil Production?

While the current situation doesn’t look particularly good, it must be said that sustainable palm oil is definitely viable. The RSPO guidelines for sustainable palm oil are a good starting point. Surely, there is an argument to be made that these rules aren’t enforced the way they should – if at all. However, the practices listed there should be considered the standard for sustainable palm oil production.

No new deforestation, cooperation with local communities along with the adoption of better and more efficient techniques are just some of the options. But other changes need to happen in the supply chain. These companies continue to operate the same way for one reason – there is a market for it. As long as giant corporations continue to acquire palm oil from questionable suppliers, this change will never happen.

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