The Palm Oil Conundrum

Palm oil may be heaven for food and cosmetics manufacturers, but it’s hell for orangutans. The issue is not about the palm oil itself – it’s actually proven to be a great substitute for more unhealthy hydrogenated oils and trans fats. The problem is the way palm oil is grown that is so incredibly destructive to the world’s most sensitive tropical rainforest environments.

The ingredient has soared in worldwide demand, particularly in the US and EU, and is used in everything from lipstick and soap to soymilk, cookies and ice cream. Because it is so inexpensive in commodity markets, it is estimated that 50% of all packaged grocery products sold in the US and EU contain palm oil, and the oil is also a staple in India, China and many developing nations.

Yet, large-scale production of low-priced, conventionally produced palm oil is now taking a serious toll in terms of massive environmental and habitat destruction, social unrest and global climate change.

Derived from the high-yielding oil palm of African origin, palm oil is primarily cultivated in huge plantations that today have displaced millions of hectares of native tropical rainforests from Indonesia to Africa, and with it, iconic species including orangutans, Sumatran tigers, pygmy elephants and rhinoceros, now on the brink of extinction through outright killing and devastating loss of habitat.

According to the UK’s The Guardian, in only a “single generation,” logging and global agribusiness, including primarily palm and acacia plantations, have cut Indonesia’s rainforest – nearly the size of Europe – by half, and the news source also warned that “the Sumatran rainforest will mostly disappear within 20 years.”

Indigenous peoples and rural communities in these regions also have been affected by the exponential expansion of palm oil over the past 20 years, and the industry has been responsible for numerous human rights abuses and hundreds of conflicts between agribusiness conglomerates and local communities, with entire forest towns forcefully removed or relocated to make way for more palm oil acreage.

Climate – and Market – Heating for Palm Oil So much pristine rainforest – among the earth’s densest in biodiversity – is being cleared in Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s largest palm oil producers, to make way for palm oil plantations that the region has become the world’s third largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, behind only China and the U.S. Rainforests, and especially the peat forests of Indonesia, sequester massive amounts of carbon. However, when vast swaths are cleared through bulldozing and burning, all that carbon is released into earth’s warming atmosphere.

Palm oil plantation expansion is projected to contribute more than 558 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in 2020 – an amount greater than all of Canada's current fossil fuel emissions, says a Stanford study published Oct. 7, 2012, in the journal Nature Climate Change. The study concluded that deforestation for the development of oil palm in Indonesian Borneo is becoming a globally significant source of carbon dioxide emissions.

All this is driven, of course, by rising demand for “healthier” and less costly fats. Globally, palm oil consumption has quintupled since 1990, says Bloomberg Business Week. In February, exports from Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of palm oil, hit a five-year high. Demand is predicted to more than double by 2030 and to triple by 2050. Over 70% ends up in food, but biofuel demand for palm oil is expanding rapidly, reports Greenpeace. Indonesia already has 6 million hectares of oil palm plantations, but has plans for another 4 million by 2015 dedicated to biofuel production alone. Africa and Latin America are the next frontiers to supply rising global demand for palm oil, with tens of thousands of hectares under development in sensitive and ecologically diverse rainforest regions and wildlife corridors.

The Natural Industry Responds The natural and organic products industry, alas, is also responsible in part for the environmental destruction caused by commercial palm oil production. A walk down the aisles of any natural foods store will reveal a number of products made with palm oil or one of its many derivatives, including Vitamin A Palmitate, Stearic Acid, Palm Kernel Oil, Palmitate, and other ingredients.

In response to growing pressure from consumers and leading NGOs about the destructive impact of commercial palm oil production, some sustainably minded food companies are taking action, and suppliers including Agropalma in Brazil and Daabon in Colombia are seeking to provide sources of certified organic and sustainable palm oil. While still a drop in the bucket in terms of overall global impact of palm oil, these initiatives are welcome steps in the right direction.

One company that uses palm oil in its proprietary vegetable oil blend is Boulder Brands, publicly held maker of Earth Balance plant-based, natural and organic buttery spreads. “We are aware of the issues surrounding palm oil and are pushing our supply chain for more sustainable options,” says Duane Primozich of Boulder Brands, maker of natural, organic and gluten-free products under the Smart Balance, Earth Balance, Udi’s, Glutino and Evol brands.

“Currently, we purchase Green Palm certificates to offset our conventional palm oil purchases, and we source only from (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) RSPO member suppliers,” says Primozich. The company also contributes to the work of Dr. Birute Galdikas, the world’s foremost authority on orangutans, whose foundation is seeking to establish orangutan Legacy Forests in Borneo. Working with Daabon, which Primozich says has a strong reputation for sustainability in South America and takes a holistic approach to agriculture, Boulder Brands is seeking to convert more of its supply chain to South America – currently, 40% of the palm oil it purchases is sourced from South America and is certified organic - as demand for organic is growing twice as fast as its natural and conventional products, says Primozich.

“While we still have conventional palm oil in our non-organic Earth Balance items, we have affidavits in place from our suppliers certifying our oil comes from peninsular Malaysia vs. the Talamantan region of Borneo, which is one of the last habitats for orangutans. However small a role, the company remains committed to exploring all options to source sustainable plant-based oils" he says.

Organic and fair trade company Dr. Bronner’s has gone to great lengths to develop its own sustainable, certified organic palm oil farm project, Serendipalm, to supply the ingredient for its own solid soap bars and other products. According to Les Szabo, who helps director the Serendipalm project for the fourth-generation family owned business, Dr. Bronner’s works directly with farmers and producers in Asuom, Ghana, where no rainforests are destroyed for palm plantations. The company works with its Ghanaian partners to improve soil quality and yields through organic farming practices; respect and promote endemic species' habitats; ensure safe working conditions; and pay fair wages. Dr. Bronner's also pays 10% into a fair trade fund, which is used for community development projects in the area. To date, these fair trade funds have helped to provide four deep-water wells, living quarters for nurses at a local hospital, and school supplies for local children, Szabo says. The company hopes to scale production to provide for future growth and possibly to supply other companies with organic, fair trade palm oil, but that’s a long-term goal, he says.

Sustainable food producer Nutiva recently introduced certified organic Red Palm Oil grown on small family farms in northwest Ecuador. By partnering with Natural Habitats in Ecuador, the company says it ensures that no deforestation or habitat destruction results from the growing or harvesting process, and the product is fair trade certified by Fair for Life. The region in Ecuador where Nutiva’s palm oil is sourced is grown on organic farms averaging 10 hectares (about 25 acres), interspersed throughout regional forests. These farms were planted many years ago, says the company, and are now being worked by second and third generation family farmers.

Anther company, Justin’s Nut Butter, uses only what it calls “Orangutan Friendly Palm Oil” in its peanut butter and related products from organic ingredients trader Ciranda and sourced from Brazil. "We don't believe boycotting palm oil - the harvesting and production of which is the livelihood of so many - is the solution; but rather it's being conscientious about where and how we source the ingredient," explained Justin Gold, CEO and founder of Justin's, in a July 2011 press release.

NGOs, Sustainable Palm Oil Producers Collaborate The production and sourcing of palm oil has been subject to intense criticism by heavyweight NGO organizations, including Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, Rainforest Alliance, World Wildlife Fund and others. That’s why it was promising when a joint collaborative of major NGOs, including RAN, WWF and Greenpeace, plus palm oil producers and traders including Agropalma, Daabon, New Britain Palm Oil Ltd. and others announced in June 2013 the formation of the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), designed to enhance and set out clearer sustainability standards than the RSPO, an industry led association that has been criticized as weak by environmental groups and industry critics.

According to the Rainforest Action Network, “Responsible palm oil is produced without contributing to rainforest or peat land destruction, species extinction, greenhouse gas emissions or human rights abuses. Food manufacturing companies need transparent and traceable supply chains from the plantation where the palm oil was sourced to the final product on your grocery store shelf.”

Humans have been cultivating and using palm oil for thousands of years, however it wasn’t until 1885 when William Lever founded Lever Brothers in England and became the first to commercialize the use of palm oil for its bar soaps, and to build palm oil plantations in Indonesia. The company, which later became Unilever, is now among the world’s largest buyers of palm oil for its myriad consumer products. Yet, the company’s CEO Paul Polman is now committed to cutting in half Unilever’s massive environmental impact while doubling sales, stating that doing one is good for the other. If Unilever can effect such a change it would have a massive impact and perhaps take a bit of pressure off such aggressive palm oil expansion.

The question is can we put a check on a largely unregulated, expansionist industry in time to save what’s left of Indonesia’s native rainforests and iconic species, and promote sustainable palm oil development there and in Latin America and Africa, where rainforests and species of their own could be under threat by rampant palm oil expansion? There’s got to be a better way to make a candy bar!

Photo 1: Deforestation in Riau Province in Sumatra makes way for an oil palm plantation. Wikipedia