Palm oil production is responsible for clearing 27 million hectares of the earth’s surface. But palm oil itself is a highly productive crop compared to its alternatives. Replacing palm oil with other oils has the potential to clear even more land. Palm oil itself isn’t the problem, it’s the industry practices surrounding it. Thanks to The World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) and The Round Table of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), 20% of the palm oil industry has been reformed with sustainable and ethical practices. Conscious consumers can now look out for RSPO certified or Palm Oil free written on the back of labels, to make sure their products aren’t complicit in environmental degradation.
What’s wrong with the traditional palm oil industry?
Palm oil has been responsible for clearing rainforests, human settlements and leading precious species like the Sumatran Tiger and Orangutan to the brink of extinction. Deservingly, palm oil producers have a horrible reputation for destroying the environment and stealing land from Indigenous communities. But removing palm oil production could equally harm the environment and isn’t the solution. Reforming the industry with sustainable and ethical practices is a better solution for farmers' livelihoods and the environment.
In 2002, WWF started negotiating with all parties involved in the production of palm oil. What resulted was the RSPO, a non-profit with 3000 plus members working to make palm oil production ethical and sustainable. The board consists of 16 seats with 4 seats reserved for NGOs. The RSPO established a certification that mandates fair wages and conditions, no land clearing or stealing from Indigenous land, as well as protecting endangered species and monitoring pollution. Since they’ve been in operation, 20% of palm oil production has been certified with the RSPO, conserving 189 million hectares of forest as a result.
Why is it important to improve rather than replace the palm oil industry?
Palm oil produces 4-10 times more oil than other crops per cultivated land. Replacing it with soy, sunflower or rapeseed would result in larger amounts of land needed to be cleared to produce what palm oil can in a smaller space, resulting in further environmental degradation.
Palm oil production supports millions of farmers and their families, helping to reduce poverty. In Indonesia and Malaysia, 4.5 million people earn their living from palm oil production and stopping it would take away that income stream.
What should I look for on the labels?
Palm oil is everywhere. It’s in our food, cosmetics, soap and even fuel. Check the ingredients on a brand's website or the back packaging for the phrase “RSPO certified” or “Palm Oil Free.”
By making sure your product is free from non-RSPO certified palm oil, you’re supporting the transition to a more sustainable and ethical palm oil industry around the world. This not only curbs further environmental degradation that would happen if it was replaced with alternative oils, but it also helps maintain the livelihood of farmers and their families who rely on this industry.