The Devastation that is the Palm Oil Industry

While I believe in the importance of positivity, in some topics it is hard to see anything but devastation. This is one of those topics.

If you could name a single thing found in almost every commercial product on the shelf (cereal to shampoo), what would it be? For once, I am not talking about water. I am talking about oil. GreenPalm reports palm oil as the largest source of the world’s vegetable oil at 35% [1]. Why? Because, as an industry, palm oil is highly attractive. As the cheapest, most versatile oil on the market, palm oil is perfect! Right?!

Rather, it is a perfect demonstration of the complexities of environmental impact and money. A problem deeply rooted in the science of economics, of which I am no expert. But!! I find the conflict between short-sighted economic growth and longterm local sustainability fascinating and extremely worrisome. Here, as visible throughout human history, the lack of foresight connected to instant gain has won over other more sustainable practices.

  • So what is it?

Oil palm is extracted from the fruit of a variety of palm tree know as Elaeis Guineensis. The trees produce fruit all year long and the flesh and seed contain 50% oil. Palm oil is considered highly versatile with benefits including: high melting point, smooth texture, long shelf-life, thick lather, and low concentrations of Trans Fat (compared with other vegetable oils). The oils are located in margarines, cooking oils, and virtually all processed foods. Practically, all cosmetics and detergents contain palm oil. GreenPalm reported that more than 50% of products on the market contain palm oil in one capacity or another [3]. And now, a sector of the biodiesel industry has begun to use palm oil. Indonesia and Malaysia have both released plans to expand the biodiesel market contributing millions of the metric tons [2].

  • Where does it grow?

Palm Oil grows about 10 degrees above and below the equator in some of the most fertile regions in the world. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand as the three largest producers and exporters of palm oil. In 2012 South East Asia, produced 49.15 million metric tons. Additionally, Indonesia has aims to double the production of palm oil by 2020 [2]. The FAO also reported the expansion of the palm oil market to Central and South America. Now Palm Oil, demonstrates an expanding risk of the forests in these regions. Colombia is now the fourth largest contributor of palm oil [2].

  • Where are the markets?

Palm Oil is one of the few markets the USA is not single-handedly driving. In 2015, India, Indonesia, and the European Union represented the three largest markets respectively consuming, 9.2, 7.3, and 7.2 million metric tons [1].

Now considering the oil and fats market between population and consumption (including all three markets: food, commercial, and biofuel), the average US citizen consumes 55.4 kg annually. Therefore, on a per capita basis, the US falls second only after the European Union at 60kg annually per person. For perspective, despite being the largest market, the average Indian citizen only consumes 15kg of oil and fats per year [4].

IMG_0101

For 2016, Statista reported that the USA consumed about 1.285 million metric tons. Consumption is ultimately the issue here. Imagine, if every US citizen cut consumption in half it would amount to about 0.643 million metric tons or 167,050 hectares! New York City is 78,550 hectares 🍎 I calculated these values using statistics from Statista and Palm Oil Research.

  • What are the Economic and Population Implications?

Because, palm oil can be harvested all year round, as a factor of space per capita, it produces magnitudes of oil far greater than other oils on the market (soya, rapeseed, and sunflower). The magnitude of oil, coupled with the cheapest refinery rates, and desirable chemical properties creates a huge market for palm oil. Huge multinational corporations, source and grow palm oil creating the billion dollar industry. In 2011, the Malaysian Palm Oil Counsil reported that the industry employed 570,000 individuals [5], only employing 2% of the total population. This is nothing considering that the Palm Oil Industry contributes Up to 18% of the global carbon emmisions. In 2015, the Southeast Asia Haze became international news when countries including: Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, southern Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines, reported the air pollution above hazardous levels. Multiple Indonesian providences called a state of emergency, with over 140,000 cases of respiratory illness [7]. Roughly 100,300 deaths occurred as a result of the air quality, according to a US based study [7]. The study was later refuted by Indonesian, Singapore, and Malaysian health authorities [8]. The Smog was a result of slash and burns, most associated directly with the Palm Oil Industry.

As a summary of economic gain versus cost,  corporations destroy the livelihoods of smallholders, mass production displaces thousands of indigenous people, and burning of forest renders the air unfit for human livelyhood. Thus, short-sighted economic growth has won over longterm sustainability

  •  What are the Environmental Implications? They are devastating.

Globally, only three large and unbroken expanses of tropical rain forest remain: the amazon, the Congo, and the Southeast Asia rain forest of Indonesia and Malaysia. Historically, humans have cleared the tropical forests of China and India almost entirely, with massive deforestation continuing throughout these regions and others. Tropical rainforests and Coral reefs are considered the most biodeverse ecosystem on the planet [9]. At only 13% of the land area, tropical forests contain over half of all known species [10].  As one of the most biodeverse ecosystems and home to numerous endangered species including Orangutans, Indonesia and Malaysia forests are burning to ashes. It is projected that Indonesia will have converted 26 million hectares to the production of palm oil by 2025 [11]. For size reference, 40% of Texas land mass would be covered in palm farms. Rainforest rescue also projects that nearly “300 soccer fields” are destroyed hourly to be replaced by palm trees.

Southeast Asia has the highest relative rate of deforestation of any major tropical region, and could lose three quarters of its original forests by 2100 and up to 42% of its biodiversity.” Navjot S. Sodhi (2004) Southeast Asian biodiversity: an impending disaster. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. Vol 19(12) Pg: 654-660.

Of the species living in the rainforests only 15% can survive on palm oil plantations [2]. Much of these plantations are peatlands known to contain 18 to 28 times more carbon than the forest above. One article reported that the peat soils in Southeast Asia have carbon storage comparable to all of the  vegetation in the Amazon forest [2]. Burning of the peatland releases these stores into the atmosphere.

“Policies to conserve the forests depend on being able to demonstrate their economic value and on social measures involving local community participation.” [Peter Eaton]

To really consider an environments inherent economic and global value, one must compare the usefulness of forest resources with the benefit from environmental conservation. The issue remains, it is far harder to provide the economic value (in dollars) for longterm sustainable practices therefore the efforts of conservation are often thwarted. Considering the destroyed forest is priceless, this is a tragedy.

  • Is Sustainable Production Actually sustainable? Or just enabling consumption?

While the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and GreenPalm preach “sustainable farming, transparency, traceability, and credibility”, even sustainable consumption of palm oil is still devastating to the rainforest and indigenous peoples.

The versatility of oil palm has long overshadowed the damaging affects of overproduction. Overporduction has reached the point that organizations now exist to disguise the issues with enticing words like sustainability. Now as members of RSPO, corporations can use “sustainable practices” to destroy our most precious ecosystems. As just one example of word manipulation, here is a statistic from GreenPalm’s website:

“oil palm requires 10 times less land than the other three major oil producing crops”

This is misleading, because GreenPalm is not accounting for the inherent value of the land. As recognized by the scientific community, the most biodiverse and important ecosystems on the planet are Coral Reefs and Tropical Rainforests. Nevertheless, mass corporations set aside logic and ethics to feed us margarine that melts at the right temperature and soap that lathers softly.

Hundreds of mass corporations are partners with RSPO working to expand production!?! Wilmar International, Cargill, Nestle, Unilever, Procter and Gamble, and Walmart are just a few of the largest customers. See the World Widelife Fund (WWF) 2016 Palm Oil Scorecard for a complete list. Maybe the largest hypocrite on the list: Unilever claims there purpose is ” to make sustainable living commonplace”. Next to the industries effort to expand palm oil production, and to restore palm oils “social acceptability” this is truly reprehensible. On Unilevers page regarding Palm Oil they even admit there is not enough oil to meet demand:

“there is not enough segregated certified palm oil available on the market to fully meet the demand…” Unilever – Transforming the Palm Oil Industry.

On this same page, Unilever recognizines the impact of the deforestation, yet they still find need to grow the market and demand. Thus, Palm oil continues creeping into the rainforest. Sustainable practices are just “the best long-term way for our business to grow (in the words of Unilever).”  Ultimately these corporations are not interested in the wellbeing of the forest biodiversity, the indeginous peoples, or the greater climate impact; they are simply interested in business growth. The palm oil industry is a real-time example of instant gain winning over the conservation of precious, earth resources. Greater efforts most be made to conserve the Southeast Asian Rainforest. The solution should be simple: reducing consumption

Take action

Rainforest Rescue is a great resource for information regarding Palm Oil and the locally affected environments. On the website they call for proposition of local governments to address the unethical practices of the palm oil industry. Join the efforts to reduce palm oil deforestation at the root!

In addition find a plethora of information in the article How the Palm Oil Industry is Cooking the Planet. For Information on how to mitigate palm oil consumption look out for my next post on Practices for Avoiding and Reducing Palm Oil Consumption.

At least in my experience, these issues enable depression, anger, and confusion. I struggle with these feelings each day, but I try to take solace in the thought that there are masses of people in the opposition fighting unethical consumption and climate change. Also yoga is great 🤸🏽‍♀️, the practice is really important to my sustained well being. Be conscientious and have a beautiful day lovely!

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