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Palm Oil: Sustainability Crossroads

By now you may have heard about palm oil, a tropical plant-based fat that has recently surged in popularity because it can be used to replace hydrogenated oils (trans fats) in many processed foods. As government regulations regarding the removal of trans fats from our food supply continue to increase while consumer demand for processed foods remains the same, companies have become increasingly dependent on palm oil as an inexpensive source of shelf-stable fat. This increased demand is having disastrous implications for tropical rainforests and our shared environment in a short amount of time. When it comes to palm oil, we’re at a sustainability crossroads.

An unnecessary direction

Palm oil comes from the African oil palm tree. In many ways, the oil palm is an ideal source for sustainable ingredients. This hardy tree grows quickly in a wide range of tropical environments and yields lots of oil—in fact, it requires about one-tenth of the land needed to produce the same amount of oil as soybeans or canola.

Most palm oil today comes from Indonesia, a biodiverse Southeast Asian nation made up of thousands of tropical islands. Indonesia’s largest island, Sumatra, is home to species which can’t be found anywhere else on earth. Farmers looking to earn a living from the surging demand for inexpensive palm oil have cleared roughly 44 million acres—an area equivalent to the state of North Dakota—in order to grow oil palms. This destruction has put many unique animals on the endangered species list.The slash and burn methods used to clear rainforests have made Indonesia the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases and a major contributor to global climate change. Indonesia’s rainforests grow on peatlands, swampy layers of ancient, carbon-rich vegetation that spread deep beneath the forest floor. A single acre of burning peatland rainforest can release over 10,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. This is in addition to the loss of trees which acted as a carbon sink by removing carbon dioxide from the air. 

The Sumatran orangutan

The Sumatran tiger, rhinoceros, elephant and orangutan are critically endangered due to palm oil expansion into their habitat. Scientists are especially concerned about the Sumatran orangutan because it is a keystone species, which means the orangutans' presence helps other species thrive.

These amazing animals are known as "gardeners of the forest," because while they feed in the forest canopy, they drop fruit-laden branches to the forest floor below, where they can be eaten by other animals or grow into new trees. If Sumatran orangutans become extinct, it will severely damage ecological health in Sumatra's remaining rainforests.

The Orangutan Information Centre is a Sumatran organization that works with the local community to restore critical habitat and provide education on a range of sustainability issues. As of 2014, they've planted over a million native trees in deforested areas of Gunung Leuser National Park, which is one of just two remaining habitats for the Sumatran orangutan. To learn more, check out this brief video.

Turning towards sustainability

Thankfully, as consumers become educated on this issue, companies are beginning to take note. This is a trend that must continue in order to reach palm oil’s potential as a sustainable ingredient. Increased consumer demand for sustainable products has led many manufacturers to consider how the ingredient could be produced more sustainably. Familiar third-party certification programs, such as USDA Organic and fair trade, can help people identify palm oil that has been produced with sustainability in mind. You may also see the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) logo on products containing “Certified Sustainable Palm Oil.” RSPO brings palm oil industry stakeholders together with environmental groups to increase awareness and availability of sustainable palm oil. RSPO members agree on a set of principles which includes a commitment to transparency and a promise to avoid future deforestation, particularly in areas of high biodiversity. Many environmental groups acknowledge that RSPO’s current principles are insufficient, however most agree that the principles are a necessary first step towards a more sustainable future.

As of 2014, roughly 75% of palm oil producers have committed to RSPO principles, and still more companies are sourcing organic and fair trade palm oil. This makes many experts hopeful that consumer interest in sustainable palm oil has reached a turning point that will make truly sustainable palm oil increasingly available. 

The way forward

This complex issue can be addressed by a range of actions. It is important to note that avoiding palm oil in favor of other oils isn’t necessarily more sustainable, since that could lead companies to switch to other less productive, and therefore inherently less sustainable, oils. What you can do:

Read the list of ingredients 

Palm oil can appear on ingredient labels of processed foods in many different forms. The World Wildlife Fund provides a comprehensive list of ingredients that are likely to be derived from palm oil. If a product contains these ingredients, look for fair trade, USDA Organic, and/or RSPO certified labels.

Contact manufacturers 

If your favorite product contains palm oil that’s not fair trade, organic or RSPO certified, consider contacting the manufacturer. Ask about their policy for sourcing ingredients, and if they have plans to transition to more sustainable sources in the future.

Make a donation

See the side bar about the Orangutan Information Centre, an organization working to restore native rainforest habitat in Sumatra for more information about how you can help.

Learn about food sourcing issues 

The palm oil issue is a great introduction to the complexities of our global food system. Although it is an extreme example, it is by no means the only one. By becoming well informed consumers, we can decrease the negative environmental and social impacts of our food choices. One easy way to begin is by looking for locally produced foods. Since the impact is closer to home, you have more information about how it was produced and how it effects the land and people where it was grown.