In the great palm oil debate, which is currently raging, amidst allegations of the pursuit of profit at the expense of sustainability, it seems that some kernels of truth have been lost along the way. Palm oil is a harmless, natural product in and of itself; it is the nature of human action which causes problems. This article explores the truth behind the crop and posits how perceptions can–and should–be changed towards it. It does not seek to minimise the risk to our planet posed by bad palm oil production, but it does propose that the picture is more nuanced than we have been led to believe. In short, not all palm oil production is bad. We need transparency and honesty if we’re going to effectively address the concerns of all types of people across the world–whether it be vegans, the organic movement, or those concerned about workers’ rights and poverty. Let’s take each of these one by one.
Vegan and Organic
Palm oil, as the name suggests, is from a palm tree–natural and wholly plant-based in its raw form. So far so good for vegans. So should vegans choose palm oil, and why do many of them boycott it? A clue can be found in the Vegan Society’s own definition of veganism–which “seeks to exclude–as far as possible and practicable–all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” Vegans simply can’t be sure that the palm oil they consume has come from animal-friendly and environmentally sustainable sources.
How about those looking for organic produce? Here too, this natural product should pass the test with flying colours. The Soil Association definition states that it must “use fewer (or no) pesticides than non-organic produce; it must not contain GM elements; and no artificial preservatives must be used.” Though there are increasing numbers of good, sustainable producers selling palm oil which pass this test, they remain in the minority–just 19% of the world’s crop is sustainable according to standards established by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Therefore, some vegans and organic campaigners believe it is safer to cut out all palm oil from their purchases rather than take the risk of buying unsustainable varieties.
Herein lies the challenge, and it is a somewhat ironic one–for we find that we have to market a product that in its natural form is already entirely vegan and organic as…vegan and organic. The picture is blurred because of the human input in the process, that is, what we do to obtain and process the palm oil. Rather than demonise the product, we instead need to shine a light on the unscrupulous or non-compliant producers of what has been called “conflict palm oil.” Perhaps we need to look again at the question we started out with, too. Instead of asking “Should vegans choose palm oil?” we could try asking “Should vegans boycott only unsustainable and non-organic palm oils?” Even with this question, we need to recognise that it can be very difficult to separate which ingredients come from good and bad suppliers in any one product. One thing is for sure; we need the power and passion of the vegan and organic movements to get behind sustainable, organic palm oil as much as is practicable. Then, the sum of the parts really would be greater than the whole.
Land usage and economic benefits
The palm oil industry seems to attract paradoxes. For example, concerns of child labour and poverty in palm oil production must be balanced with the fact that in many instances the industry often offers locals a path out of poverty. A further contradiction is that a ban would almost certainly do more harm than good, due to the larger land needs of other crops. Replacing palm oil with other vegetable oils, such as soy, doesn’t necessarily solve the issue of deforestation and may actually worsen it. Switching to alternatives would most likely cause more land to be used to produce oils from other crops. Soy, for example, would use five times as much land to produce an equivalent amount to palm oil-and would not help alleviate child labour issues and concerns around pesticide use.
The industry must aim for responsible innovation, rather than innovation at any cost. Those suggesting using oils derived from algae, to take another example, should bear in mind that large amounts of sugar are needed to produce it–only a small proportion of which is certified as sustainable. In addition, algae used in the past has been genetically modified, causing a consumer backlash as far back as 2014 for some leading producers. Using algae or yeast to produce oils may ultimately be one of the future solutions the industry adopts, but it will be many years or even decades before the regulatory hurdles are overcome and they are able to be produced in sufficient quantities. In the meantime, palm oil will remain a hugely valuable crop, so we should get used to producing it responsibly.
Checks and balances
There is an underlying concern amongst many, including vegans and organic campaigners, as to the proportion of palm oil that is truly sustainable, and the checks and balances that exist to verify it. This situation is improving all the time and can only improve to the point of universal adoption by the continued work and engagement of ordinary people, subtly changing their buying habits, and calling out large corporations that rely on them for their customer base. Currently, 19% of the world’s palm oil is certified by the RSPO. Until 2018, RSPO certification allowed the clearing of secondary forests for palm oil plantations, though it now prohibits all forms of deforestation. There is, even in these pockets of industry best-practice, still room for improvement. The issue of cost also remains a concern and a barrier to uptake–it can cost up to $15 more per tonne to certify palm oil, and some smaller producers simply don’t have the money. This is not, however, a reason to despair–it is rather a reason to persuade the large conglomerates that do have the funds to do this, or risk being boycotted.
Creating real change requires motivation and focus, both to get started in the first place and then to carry the momentum forward into the future. Imagine, for a moment, a world without doughnuts, pizza, soap, toothpaste or deodorant. Clearly that’s an extreme thought and most likely not to ever happen–but it focuses the mind, and it underlines an important point; if we want to continue to have our favourite products produced in the quantities we’ve come to demand (and at a price that we can afford), then we have to accept that palm oil must be used, and that it must be produced sustainably. As the World Wildlife Fund points out, its functionality means it touches all of our lives; it’s in around to 50% of the packaged products we find in supermarkets and it’s also used in animal feed and as a biofuel. It is semi-solid at room temperature and can keep spreads spreadable; it is resistant to oxidation and can give products a longer shelf-life; it’s stable at high temperatures and so can give fried products a crispy texture; it’s also odourless and colourless so it doesn’t alter the look or smell of food products.
We all must take responsibility for our lives–we aren’t going to give up shampoo and margarine and sweets. Therefore, we will need palm oil in our lives–and if we accept this then we need to produce it correctly. Big industry will only seriously begin to change when consumers demand it in sufficient numbers–and consumers will only do this when levels of public awareness increase.
As to retailers’ responsibilities, Monique van Wijnbergen of Palm Done Right is clear as to what they should be doing. “They need to try to work only with suppliers who use palm oil and derivatives that are produced ethically and sustainably. Secondly, they must raise the bar for brand suppliers by developing or revising their palm oil policies and demanding that suppliers transition to 100% sustainable palm oil supply, within a set time-frame.”
You’re not alone
Whilst it may seem a tall order to expect consumers to do their research and ask probing questions of producers before buying, it’s important to remember that there is help and advice out there. Some organisations have created online scoring tools so consumers can rank companies according to their sustainability credentials. The WWF palm oil sustainability scorecard is one such tool. Palm Done Right also provides a list of brand partners and retailers that are part of their scheme.
We must all ask our brands and shops to do better. If we all make the effort to be realistic with ourselves in terms of what products we need in our lives (and what they’re made from), and then take the time to choose carefully using the evidence available, this will be a powerful movement towards a fairer and more sustainable world.
-  Vegan Society [online]. https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/definition-veganism
-  Soil Association [online]. https://www.soilassociation.org/whatisorganic/
-  Principles and Criteria for the Production of Sustainable Palm Oil 2018, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (revised February 1, 2020) [online] https://rspo.org/resources/certification/rspo-principles-criteria-certification
-  International Labor Rights Forum [online]. https://laborrights.org/publications/human-cost-conflict-palm-oil
-  WWF Palm Oil Program [online]. https://www.worldwildlife.org/industries/palm-oil
-  WWF Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard [online] (2020). https://palmoilscorecard.panda.org
-  Palm Done Right [online] (2020). https://www.palmdoneright.com/en/the-people-doing-palm-right/brand-partners/