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Towards the end of last year, there was widespread uproar around the banning of Iceland’s tear-jerking advert which featured the cute ‘Rang-Tan’ cartoon character explaining to a young child how it’s rainforest home was being destroyed by palm oil harvesting humans.
The advert was banned on the grounds of political advertising, due to the fact that the video was originally created by the environmental activist group, Greenpeace. Despite being banned from television, the advert gained vast amounts of media coverage and had been viewed online over 30 million times within its first few weeks.
What is palm oil and what is the big deal?
Palm oil is similar to vegetable oils such as sunflower or rapeseed but is instead extracted from the fruit of oil palms. Oil palm trees are native to Africa, however, are now grown on farms primarily in Indonesia and Malaysia on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, but also in Latin America and Africa since the trees grow well in the hot and humid rainforest type environments.
As the advert dramatically highlights, the palm oil industry is having a devastating effect on wildlife. The most notably affected animals are the highly endangered orangutans, Sumatran tigers, elephants and rhinos, who are being forced from their habitats in order to make space for palm oil plantations. A shocking 270,000 hectares of rainforest is cleared annually to support the growing demand for palm oil. Much of the farmland is created through illegal logging, despite many of the areas being ‘protected’ conservation areas. In order to prepare the ground for the plantation of oil palms the peat is burnt, letting off vast amounts of greenhouse gases, not to mention that these fires often spread out of control, working their way much further into the rainforest encroaching even more into the habitats of many animals.
So, why is palm oil so desirable?
It’s efficient and productive – palm oil trees yield as much as ten times more oil per unit of land against other oil producing plants such as soybean and rapeseed. Not only that but the trees require far less pesticide and fertiliser than other oil producing crops. Palm oil is also extremely cheap since there is no need to replant year on year and the trees require little to no care. The oil itself also has almost unlimited uses and goes into not only food products, but soaps and shampoos, cleaning products and detergents, cosmetics, candles and even biofuels. For this reason, the demand for the product has, in recent years, escalated dramatically.
The real issue is not really palm oil itself, but more the deforestation that is occurring due to its ever-increasing demand. However palm oil is not by any means the only cause of deforestation, or even close to being the biggest threat. There are just four main commodities held responsible for around 99% of global deforestation, and these are animal agriculture, soybean, palm oil and the timber trade. In fact, in relation to Borneo for example, deforestation has been occurring on an industrial scale since the early 1960s, not for palm oil, but for coal mining, furniture manufacture and hydroelectric dams to name but a few.
Poverty in these areas
In many of these areas, there is a significant lack of job opportunity and the poverty levels are relatively high. As a result of this, when an opportunity such as setting up a palm oil farm arises, many local people are drawn in by the potential earnings that could be achieved. These small farmers contribute increasingly to the areas’ booming palm oil industry. In addition to the wages, many of the local governments provide subsidies for farmers (smallholders). In Indonesia for example, this policy has helped some 1.5 million Indonesians develop nearly half of the country’s palm oil farmland. The increase in palm oil production in such areas has significantly improved the poverty rates, the livelihood and security of local small farmers.
Boycotting palm oil won’t work
Although the obvious decision would be to refuse to purchase any item that contains palm oil, boycotting the product completely could cause much more serious issues. As mentioned, palm oil is by far the most effective vegetable oil available, with much higher yields than its alternatives. Without the demand for palm oil, the risk is that businesses will use alternative oils such as rapeseed, sunflower, soy or coconut oils, which require much more land per unit of oil and their production requires more chemicals and emit far more greenhouse gases. It could be the case that once the demand for palm oil decreases, local farmers will then jump on the bandwagon of the next ‘flavour of the week’, resulting in further deforestation in order to meet the demands for similar yields of alternative oils.
Sustainable Palm Oil
The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is the leading organisation spearheading environmentally and socially responsible palm oil. Just 20% of all palm oil produced is certified by RSPO. It seems there is very little incentive for producers to seek this certification due to the fact that recent discussions focus on boycotting palm oil completely rather than supporting RSPO certified farms. As a further result of this, many large food and cosmetics brands that have invested in certified palm oil do not promote this fact, presumably in fear of being boycotted as a result of the negativity surrounding the use of the oil in any form, whether deemed to be sustainable or not. This all being said, how sustainable is the palm oil certified by RSPO?
“Sustainable” Palm Oil?
Despite some suggesting that the way forward is boycotting unsustainable palm oil and supporting those business’ who have obtained certification, the RSPO certificate and the label of ‘sustainable palm oil’ can in some ways be deemed meaningless. It seems that there are very few requirements in place to justify the RSPO certification. Many ‘sustainable’ palm oil producers are unable to indicate exactly where all of their oil is produced. The rules for obtaining an RSPO certificate can also be misleading. Certificates can and have been awarded to companies based on the sustainability of single farms, with disregard for the business’ other plantations. In many instances, sustainable and non-sustainable palm oil from a number of different plantations have been mixed and pumped into products that contain the RSPO certificates. This means that unsustainable oils with the RSPO label are often sold before the plantations are actually examined by The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil.
Consuming Less & Education
It seems to be of the growing opinion that unless authorities can regulate truly sustainable palm oil, the only real answer to help stop deforestation and the extinction of wildlife is to consume less and educating others. Without giving up our jobs and volunteering as teachers abroad, there is little we can do as individuals to educate. However, educating the indigenous people of the palm oil farm areas on the negative effects that this reckless farming is having on the environment is just the first step. It is also important that we inform our colleagues, friends and family, which leads us on to the next point. It is down to us as consumers to consume less. The issue really comes down to the simple notion of supply and demand. If we want to prevent more deforestation, we must reduce the number of products we purchase. We must consume less, in general, not just those products containing palm oil. In terms of cosmetics, only purchase what you absolutely need to, and use up the products you already have. Bulk buying may be cheaper but do any of us really need ‘4 for the price of 3’ moisturisers, shampoos or body wash? Where you can, buy fresh whole food and, if possible, buy locally produced products.
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