It seems like every other organization has opposite views on palm oil, its sustainability, desirability and viability. Why does one plant induce so much controversy? What does RSPO stand for and what are environmental and human rights NGOs concerned about? In effect, what should you know about palm oil in order to form your own, reasonable opinion?
Where does most of the palm oil come from and where do we use it?
Most of the palm oil in our everyday use comes from the oil plantations from Indonesia and Malaysia. The oil palm itself is called African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) and comes from West-Africa, but it has lost most of its importance in its home ground. Several different oil palm species exist, but African oil palm is the one that has stirred most controversy.
Palm oil is extracted both from the actual palm fruit (crude palm oil) and from the kernel of the fruit (palm kernel oil). It is used for its versatility and viability in many everyday commodities, including margarine, cereals, chocolate, protein bars, cookies, cosmetics, soap, and toothpaste.
The demand for palm oil in Western world has increased lately, partly because of health awareness concerning animal fats and the fact that palm oil is considered raw material for biofuel.
What is great about palm oil?
The success of palm oil brings some positive news for the budding economies of Southeast Asia. Cultivating palm is also important business for smallholders and local entrepreneurs, not only or exclusively for big international companies. Solving the world’s energy problems with a solution that includes the natural sources of the third world could bring about more equally distributed welfare on the planet.
The cultivating of palm oil is more productive than that of other well-known plant based oils. One hectare (2.47 acres) can produce about 20 tons of fruit. Most parts of the palm tree can be made use of: if the oil is utilized as biofuel, the fruit substance can be used as nutrition for humans. The African oil palm (grown in Southeast Asia) is highly rich in energy: one hundred grams of oil palm fruit equals 526 kcal of energy, while extracted palm oil contains 860 kcal per one hundred grams.
If a palm oil plantation is taken good care of and grown sustainably, it guards the soil from erosion rather well, because the palm’s natural qualities protect the land from erosion inducing rain. Palm can be cultivated sustainably if the conservation of important rain forests and peatlands are taken into account. In the best case scenario, oil palm is cultivated in a greatly productive multistorey plantation that comprises edible plants of different heights. Sustainable cultivation also includes reconstructing already damaged peatlands and stopping their canalization for transport. New plantations could be established on land areas that are already unfit for more traditional farming or have been badly damaged by pasturage.
If the oil extracted from the fruit is used as a biofuel ingredient, by-products like silicon can be harnessed for the needs of different industries, such as environmentally friendly residential construction.
What is harmful about palm oil?
At the moment, oil palm is cultivated on conversed forest areas and peatlands that are important carbon sinks, meaning that they naturally remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and thus help preventing global warming. The areas are also the home of dozens of species, including endangered species such as the Bornean orangutan.
There have been numerous complaints about poor working conditions on plantations. In Indonesia, NGOs have drawn attention to wages below minimum level, unequal payments, unjust salary deductions and child labor. The highly confusing picture concerning the rights to use the Indonesian state forest land has led to a situation where regulating the use of forests and peatlands has become nearly impossible for the official Ministry of Forestry. This has also led to several conflicts between the original residents of Indonesian outer islands and migrants who wish to start their own palm oil production there. Exploiting the land has also endangered the innate rights of the indigenous peoples to provide for themselves by fishing, hunting and gathering fruits. The land is often conversed into plantations with little compensation to the original dwellers. While palm oil sells well today, concerns about income diversity and food sovereignty are not without foundation.
Even the health aspects are conflicting. Palm oil does not contain trans fat, but it comprises lots of saturated fatty acids and is probably not the healthiest choice on your plate. There are contradictory results on the health risks of palm oil, so if you are looking for a healthy choice, other plant based oils like olive and avocado oil are certainly more trustworthy.
What different scenarios for the future?
Roundtable for sustainable palm oil (RSPO) is an organization that maintains a voluntary system for certification of plantations. It has developed criteria for sustainable oil production but is constantly met with criticism by NGOs such as Greenpeace for its ineffectiveness and deception of consumers. You can read more about RSPO certified palm oil and criteria here. Some of the most important criticism towards RSPO is listed here. The most important claim is that to ensure future development on palm oil plantations, retailers and consumers should go beyond RSPO criteria.
The effects of palm oil cultivating are ambiguous. Effective and sustainable palm oil industry could produce comparatively environmentally healthy biofuel. However, the reported problems even from RSPO plantations reveal that a lot has to be done before we can speak of a fair and sustainable industry. For now, it may be best to weigh the pros and cons, get hold of the facts and decide where you stand with your personal choices. The bigger picture, however, is something that the larger social community, policy-makers, international organizations and perhaps even the academic community have to tackle.