The Palm Oil Controversy

 How  Does The Rainforest Alliance Help Stop Destruction of Our Rainforests?

"The Rainforest Alliance works to conserve biodiversity and 
ensure sustainable livelihoods by transforming land-use practices,
business practices and consumer behavior."

 (This article was written in 2012.  Click here for a 2016 update on our blog page.)

What Has Changed to Increase the Demand for Palm Oil?

Although palm oil has been used for years in many industries, the demand for palm oil in the food industry has increased tremendously. Since the harmful effects of consuming hydrogenated oils have become well documented, palm oil, one of the few vegetable oils that is naturally solid at room temperature, is considered a healthier alternative to trans-fat shortenings.

Also, the pressure for the production of sustainable energy in Europe through the use of biofuel, in particular palm oil, has increased demand. The price of palm oil has increased almost 40% as demand becomes greater.

The Controversy

New palm groves are often planted by clearing huge regions of rainforest. Deforestation of our rainforests threatens the survival of indigenous peoples and endangered species, impacts habitat, wildlife and biodiversity, and results in the loss of precious green space that cleans our air. The drive for more green energy to make biofuels has added a greater push for new palm plantations. Unfortunately, scientific studies are discovering that deforestation is far more damaging to our Earth’s climate than the benefits gained by switching to biofuels. As land is cleared for plantations, indigenous people are often driven from their land and source of income. Many end up working in palm plantations where they have to face unsafe working conditions, violation of their rights and insufficient pay.

Something to Think About

The palm oil industry plays a very important role in the economy of many developing countries and supports some of the world's poorest communities. Developing nations also rely on palm oil as a source of nutrition providing easy to obtain and much needed calories. In addition to providing food, the palm oil industry provides many jobs and much needed revenue.  The people of many developing countries are simply attempting to survive. For them, preservation of native forests and conservation of biological diversity is not a priority over life.

What Can Be Done?

A solution to the problem of producing palm oil while protecting the environment and allowing for the economic growth of poorer nations is not an easy one. There are some who support a boycott of palm oil.

A boycott would result in closing down the industry in developing countries, and with it their opportunity to raise their standard of living.  Although many believe the palm oil industry is about big business, 30 to 40 percent of the total production of palm oil comes from small palm oil farmers. Do any of us really believe that the big businesses will loose money? No, the greatest impact would be felt by the small family farmers who can barely afford to feed their families.

Furthermore, palm oil crops have the highest yield per hectare (1 hectare equals about 2.5 acres).  If palm oil plantations are forced to close, owners are likely to clear more rainforest in order to plant other crops that require much more space. The second largest oil crop, soy beans, would need more than 10 times the amount of land to produce the same amount of oil and sunflower would need about 8 times the amount of land. A boycott is not the answer.

Improving growing practices could double palm oil production, while at the same time protecting precious rainforests and their inhabitants. Since palm yields much more oil and requires much less land when compared to oils like soybean or sunflower, projects have begun to help countries and small farmers identify areas for palm oil development using land previously cleared for other crops. There are also huge tracts of land deforested years ago by loggers that lay abandoned and could be used for new plantations. In this way no new rainforest land would be cleared.

The answer is to improve growing conditions by supporting and encouraging the development of truly “sustainable” palm oil.

The most widely quoted definition of sustainability comes from a report from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) published on March 20, 1987 called Our Common Future. Also known as the Brundtland Report in recognition of former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland's role as Chair of the World Commission on Environment and Development, this report states that “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In order to keep precious biological systems intact we need to develop methods of harvesting or using a resource so that it is not depleted or permanently damaged, and can continue to be used with minimal long-term effect on the environment.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2003 and Certified Sustainable Palm Oil is now available. Sustainable palm oil comes from palm oil plantations which meet a set of standards that include respect for plantation workers, indigenous peoples and communities affected by palm oil production, protection of the rainforest and a commitment to environmental safeguards such as organic farming techniques including organic fertilizers and integrated pest management.

Despite the RSPO’s good intentions, it is not perfect. Simply because a company is a member of the RSPO, does not mean they are using certified sustainable palm oil. Some companies use this membership as a method of “greenwashing,” which simply gives the appearance that they are a green company. The RSPO is continually reviewing its policies and even though they do not make the system perfectly sustainable now, they are a step in the right direction.

Supporting sustainable palm oil production helps assure that valuable tropical forests will not be cleared which preserves the habitat for some of the world’s most threatened species, preserve biodiversity, protects green space that cleans our air, and still provides fare trade economic opportunities for poor communities and countries.

Over 30 years ago large tracts of rainforest in South America were cleared via “slash and burn” with a promise to indigenous people that they would have fresh farm and grazing lands. The top soil in the rainforest is very thin and with the trees gone there were no roots or temporary water storage and protection from the tree canopies to prevent soil runoff. As a result, all of the soil nutrients were washed away creating areas of barren land. The palm oil that we purchase comes from plantations that have been grown on these once barren lands in Brazil.

Rainforest Alliance Certified Sustainable Palm Oil

So instead of eliminating palm oil we use certified organic, certified sustainable palm oil.  
Our palm oil is either Rainforest Alliance certified sustainable or Friend of the Earth certified sustainable

As more and more companies, large and small, support and encourage the development of “sustainable” palm oil, we can make a difference.


It's Not Only Palm Oil!

It is interesting to note that although palm oil seems to be at the center of the deforestation controversy, soy, corn, rice, coffee and sugar crops are also major commodities responsible for deforestation.

All around the world, native forests and habitats are giving way to plantations for palm oil, soy, rubber, coffee, tea, rice and many other crops.  Last year alone, 2,256 square miles of native Amazon forest was destroyed in order to plant soybeans. Some environmentalists believe that the soybean industry is causing more destruction to the environment than any other agricultural industry on the planet. Sugar cane is one of the major crops responsible for deforestation in Columbia. Rice fields and coffee plantations are the major cause of the deforestation in Madagascar--and the list goes on.

We need to work hard and support organizations like the Rainforest Alliance, to insure that all crops, not only palm oil, are grown in a manner that supports sustainability of our native forests and protects indigenous peoples, wildlife and biodiversity.