Palm reading: should we buy or boycott products containing palm oil?

Palm oil is in close to half of all packaged products that we buy in the supermarket. From shampoo to biscuits and ice cream, to butter and spreads and it’s even in cosmetic products like lipstick; palm oil is everywhere. Famed as one of the super oil crops but also as a major cause of environmental damage (including the recent haze in Southeast Asia), it’s pretty hard to avoid, but should we be avoiding it?

When I go food shopping, whether it’s my weekly shop or a quick nip into a supermarket to pick up some key items for dinner, I want it to be as quick and stress-free as possible. Certainly, this means I don’t have the time to read the full ingredient list of everything I buy, nor the time to understand the sustainability (environmental, social and ethical) impacts of all those ingredients and to make my choice accordingly. But should we be reading the ingredients? Should we study all of the products we buy to see if they contain palm oil? And if they do, should we buy or boycott?

A shopping trolley containg many typical products at a supermnarket in the UK. Cakes, biscuits, chocolate, confectionery, meat, frozen fish, spreads, cereals, sweets, cosmetics, crisps, snacks, cleaning and hygene products amongst the items - Many products contain a surprising amount of Palm Oil © WWF / Richard StonehouseA shopping trolley containing many typical products at a supermarket in the UK. Many products contain a surprising amount of Palm Oil © WWF / Richard Stonehouse

Vegetable oils like palm oil, soybean oil, sunflower, rape seed and cotton oil can be very versatile and used to perform many different functions in products such as texturing products, flavour stability to prolonging shelf-life. Palm oil  itself is one of the most versatile of the oils and it can also be processed into hundreds of different forms or derivatives, which may not always be easy to spot on an ingredients list. As well as it featuring in nearly everything we buy, in countries like India its number one use is in cooking oil.

Global demand for these vegetable oils has grown hugely over the last decade. Demand continues to grow as more food and other products are needed to feed a rising population, consumption habits change and we have an ever-increasing need to generate renewable energy like that from biofuels.

Production of palm oil in particular has doubled over the last decade and is expected to double again by 2050, continuing to be the most highly produced and traded vegetable oil, accounting for 65% of all vegetable oils traded internationally in 2006. So as well as filling us up, keeping us clean and cooking our food, it can also be used to keep the lights on!

So what’s all the fuss about?

The good news or bad news first? OK, here’s the good news

Palm oil is an extremely productive crop, yielding up to nine times more oil per hectare than its closest alternative, meaning that it needs much less land to  grow the same amount of oil to meet global demands. It also requires less fertilisers and pesticides than the alternative vegetable oil crops. In the tropics, where palm oil is grown, it has been dubbed the miracle crop by many as it provides opportunities and employment for many, helping to lift people in rural populations out of poverty. In Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of palm oil (Indonesia and Malaysia together make up nearly 90% of all palm oil production), the palm oil sector contributes around 4.5% of GDP, in comparison, agriculture as a whole contributes just 0.6% of our total GDP.

Now the bad news

Palm oil is a major driver of deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse topical forests of Asia which are home to over 10% of global biodiversity. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest are cleared each year to make way to monoculture plantations, therefore destroying the habitat of species like the orang-utan, tigers, rhinos and elephants as well as releasing millions of tonnes of climate change causing greenhouse gas emissions. More recently palm oil expansion by burning of the carbon rich peat soils is causing the haze that is polluting huge parts of Southeast Asia and is part of a massive environmental and social crisis. Demand for palm oil is not likely to stop anytime soon, driving further land conversion into other important habitats across the rest of South America and even into Africa. Some serious action is needed.

Aerial view of palm oil plantation on deforested land, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia 2007 © naturepl.com / Juan Carlos Munoz / WWFAerial view of palm oil plantation on deforested land, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia, 2007 © naturepl.com / Juan Carlos Munoz / WWF

So, to buy or to boycott, that is the question

Reading the above, palm oil might seem like an evil crop, but in truth, it is not. The world continues to need vegetable oils and if this doesn’t come from palm oil we could need nine times more land which could mean more deforestation, more habitat conversion and even greater releases of greenhouse gases. Boycotting palm oil is not the answer!

What we need to do is support the production of sustainable palm oil which can be done by buying from companies who only use palm oil certified under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, or the RSPO. The RSPO enables us to be confident that areas of high conservation value have been preserved, local communities have been supported and palm oil plantation managers are implementing best practices.

Many criticise the RSPO for not moving far or fast enough, and this may be the case but WWF and many others are working with the RSPO to keep them moving in the right direction to include more progressive criteria for best practice and to increase the amount of plantations certified i.e. we want all palm oil produced to be sustainable.

So the answer is to buy products containing palm oil but only buy products from companies using sustainable palm oil. Help us hold them to account to make sure sustainable palm oil is the only palm oil on the market.

You can see the WWF Palm Oil Scorecard which assesses and compares a number of companies and their actions on sustainable palm oil. Look out for the next one coming in 2016 to see just how much progress they are really making!

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