Why Is Palm Oil Bad?

Answer: It’s not.

In the attempt to provide you, our visitors, with honest, quality content we have to go digging deep to find out about a subject. We are just ordinary little folk like everyone else. We had seen ads on TV about Orangutan and other wildlife habitat being destroyed somewhere in the world.

We had also heard about palm oil being bad but didn’t link the two issues until we began wondering; why is palm oil bad? It wasn’t until we started hunting down the answer to that question, doing a bit of reading and researching, that we realised they are one in the the same issue. And what a complicated issue it is! The folks at Biome have stated that they have spent “many hundreds of hours,” trying to understand this problem!

One of the main players in trying to make palm oil sustainable is the RSPO. We went on to their website to research their role and system of certification and supply. Oh boy! What a job it was trying navigate that website! We dare you to go and take a look at it and try to make heads or tails of it! But more on that later…..


Where Does Palm Oil Come From?

Palm oil comes from the African Oil Palm Tree which originates from West African regions but can grow anywhere within 10° either side of the equator. Currently, some 80 – 90% of total worldwide production of palm oil comes from just two countries! Malaysia and Indonesia. Oil is extracted from the flesh of the fruit and also from the kernel of the fruit. The oil from the flesh is most commonly used in food and cosmetics products and palm kernel oil is generally used in products like biofuel, and lubricants for industry.


So Why Is It Bad?

What is wrong with palm oil? Why is palm oil bad? Well as far as we can tell, palm oil isn’t bad. We didn’t search for information about the health effects of palm oil on the body but rather tried to get to the bottom of the main noise.

It seems the major issue revolves around the deforestation and clearing of large swathes of primary forest to make way for palm oil plantations. Primary forest is forest that has never been touched by man. The problem is that native people, animals, and rare plant species whose survival depends on that forest are displaced and, in the case of the animals and plants, are drastically reduced in numbers. Has anyone ever heard the saying, “cut off your nose to spite your face?”

Primary ForestThere has been a LOT of forest cleared, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia. We have seen varying estimates but, considering that these two countries account for some 80 – 90% of the entire planets’ palm oil production, the bulk of the problem resides in these two countries.

Of course 80 – 90% of worldwide production would not be a problem if the total production was 100 litres right? And this is where another factor comes into play. Palm oil is used in SO…MANY…PRODUCTS! Seriously.  The worldwide production is HUGE!

Allegedly 50% of all products on supermarket shelves contain palm oil. Products like margarine, cosmetics, baked goods, sweets and candies, chocolate. The list is exhaustive and surprising. Palm oil is a favourite because it is so cheap. And what do big business care about? Numbers. The bottom line. So most big businesses will always go with the cheapest option available.


Who Is To Blame?

We would like to point out that this is going to be our opinion. We would hazard a guess that there will be multiple people and organisations responsible here.

For starters, any country that allows such vast amounts of its forests to be decimated with no regard to sustainability, the future, the environmental consequences, the future cost to it’s people, and people the world over must assume some of the blame.

To that end, the Malaysian and Indonesian governments, or government departments that are supposed to manage these decisions, are an obvious target for apportion of blame. At the end of the day a government is made up of people and these kinds of problems always come back to people.

Big Business Producers – There are some big businesses who take their responsibility seriously. There are a lot that don’t give two hoots.

Consumers – A lot of consumers are unaware of the problem. We certainly didn’t realise the full scope of what was happening until we started to research this issue. Unfortunately, this lack of awareness contributes to the problem.

Manufacturers – Like consumers, we believe there may be quiet a few small to medium manufacturers of products who simply are not completely aware of the problem with palm oil. There are a lot of organisations and big business suppliers who are more than willing to deliberately deceive these small to medium manufacturers with “green washing,” claims.

Labeling Laws – This comes back to governments and government departments. For example, in Australia a bid to introduce palm oil labeling laws was rejected.

With regard to all of these groups there is always the possibility of a grey area. People in these groups and organisations may not be fully aware of the problem. Let’s face it, there are a lot of problems in the world and we can’t expect everyone to know everything. We would also not rule out corruption. With the enormous amounts of money involved in the palm oil industry this is always going to be a distinct possibility.


The RSPO (Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil)

The RSPO Logo

There are a few certification organisations for sustainable palm oil attempting to assure the purchasing public and manufacturers, who are in the know on the palm oil debate, that the palm oil they purchase is not causing harm to the environment or wildlife.

The two most prominent are The RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) and the ISCC (International Sustainability and Carbon Certification.) The ISCC deals with palm oil that is used as biofuel or the raw material for industrial use known as feedstock.

Another logo that was commonly found on products was the GreenPalm logo. GreenPalm was another intensely confusing market system where certificates were traded between retailers, manufacturers, and the producers of palm oil, all of whom had to be registered with the RSPO to access the GreenPalm trading market. That market has since been closed and an in house initiative of the RSPO, called PalmTrace, has replaced it for all intents and purposes and brought along a brand new logo. See what we mean about the issue being confusing?

The RSPO was born out of an effort of the WWF, the World Wide Fund for Nature, formerly known as the World Wildlife Foundation (they changed their name in 1986. The reason? Who knows! Sheesh!), to get different industry groups together and figure out ways to protect the natural habitat of orangutans, and other wildlife, and plants in Indonesia and Malaysia,. At that time the clearing of primary forest in these countries was both extensive and very rapid.

To be quiet honest, we are torn about what to say regarding the RSPO. Biome Eco Stores, who we like and trust very much, and Palm Oil Investigations (POI), a major palm oil advocacy group in Australia, are not enamoured with RSPO any more. In fact POI, who played a large role in getting Australian manufacturers and retailers on board with the RSPO’s system, have made a very bold statement about their newfound lack of faith in the RSPO by withdrawing their support for the RSPO in September 2016!

In their own defence the RSPO released a statement on the 27th of December 2016 that attempted to address the POI concerns.

Biome has been a concerned follower of developments in the palm oil industry from early days. They have a very good article on their website explaining the industry and their stance on the use of palm oil.

Other NGO’s (Non Governmental Organisations) are also divided about the RSPO’s effectiveness in making Malaysia and Indonesia’s palm oil industries sustainable.

Friends of the Earth International (FOEI) – don’t pull any punches when pointing out their distaste for RSPO saying,

RSPO is a voluntary certification process for a market premium and membership that may be able to add a much sought after and totally misleadinggreen tagto the industry.

and

Friends of the Earth International therefore does not regard the RSPO as a credible certification process…

Geenpeace – Much like us, and Switzerland, are taking a seat on the fence. We see it’s a complex issue and that there are valid points from both sides of the argument.

WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature, formerly World Wildlife Fund. Sheesh!) – We read WWF’s statements about RSPO as basically saying that in this situation, in these particular countries that, “It’s better the devil you know.” They were the original impetus behind the formation of the RSPO and, in effect, have orchestrated the largest organised attempt to do something about the drastically negative environmental effects of the primary forest clearing and we commend them for doing so.

As alluded to earlier, we found the RSPO website VERY difficult to navigate. There is a huge amount of information on the site, there are links in the footer that do not work, pages point to other pages which point back to the first in a merry-go-round fashion. We found that trying to get information was also  VERY difficult. Particularly on the subject of how the logo is used and how their supply chain system works which is basically the whole crux of the RSPO.

What we did glean is that there is a certificate trading system that is completely bonkers! It allows companies that use non-sustainable palm oil to buy and trade certificates so they can use the RSPO logo! There are four different supply chain models used by RSPO. Two of which seem OK to us, two that seem ridiculous, and all of which go beyond the scope of this post to try and explain. We have added some resources at the end of the post if you are interested in investigating further.

In RSPO’s defence they have a “Sustainability College,” section on their site that we did not look at yet. There is just SO much information on the site. The site is a convoluted mass of information but, hey, who are we to talk! It’s not like we’re experts on organising websites either! Suffice to say it would take quiet some time on their site to become familiar with the systems they use and how they are structured.

CSPO (Certified Sustainable Palm Oil) logo by RSPOHaving said that, the RSPO are the biggest group and organised effort to attempt to change to the palm oil industry. Anyone would have to admit that this was always going to be an extremely large and complex undertaking. According to their website, they have noble goals for increasing and promoting the production and use of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO), the logo for which you can see above. We can only hope that they have genuine motives at the heart of their organisation and activities.


What Is The Solution?

The ideal situation would be 100% of palm oil coming from sustainable sources. Workers and smallholders getting good prices for their sustainable palm oil so they and their communities can flourish. Manufacturers being able to source sustainable palm oil at reasonable prices. Consumers being able to have confidence that the palm oil products they buy are from genuinely sustainable sources and not having to pay ridiculous prices for said products because they are certified sustainable. Put simply: a miracle!

Whether this is achievable or not is a big question. Technically speaking, it is achievable. We would love it to be but, being older and having grown more cynical of governments and massive multi-national corporations in our old age, we are pessimistic.  Having witnessed bastard governments and big bastard corporations, that house individuals with twisted minds who care for nothing else in the quest for money and power, has left us in this pessimistic state of mind. However, maybe we can place our hope in some of those more optimistic millenials that seem to keep cropping up! Young entrepreneurs who conduct their affairs in the spirit of fairness to all. We can only hope!

There are a lot of groups out there saying that palm oil should be boycotted altogether and then there are others who make compelling arguments not to boycott.

The boycott side of the argument state that they have lost confidence in the institutions that have been entrusted to make palm oil sustainable, and therefore, palm oil should be boycotted, wherever possible, until such time we can be assured that the palm oil we buy and consume is truly and honestly able to be identified as sustainable. Biome, POI (Palm Oil Investigations), and FOEI (Friends Of the Earth International) fall into this category. The only exception they make is for palm oil that can be traced back to a plantation that is known to use sustainable practices known as the Identity Preserved (IP) supply chain.

One company who took matters into their own hands is Dr. Bronners. They went to great lengths to set up their own sustainable operation in Ghana. They buy from 500 local producers and have embarked on a program to support the locals with mulch and organic agriculture training.

Another is Sanctum Skincare from Australia who source their palm oil from sustainable operations in Brazil.

The “please do not boycott,” side of the argument make some valid points for their argument as well.

  1. A boycott will only pull the rug out from underneath a huge working population in Malaysia and Indonesia wreaking a devastating blow to people that have been lifted out of poverty by the palm oil industries in those two countries.
  2. Palm oil trees have anywhere between 4 – 10 times higher yield per area of land used than any other plant oil. The African oil palm is highly productive compared to its alternatives. Therefore boycotting it will only cause demand to shift to a less productive oil, which will require larger tracts of land to be used to produce the same volume of oil. Not an ideal situation.

What Do We Think?

We are inclined to think along the lines of BOS’s (Borneo Orangutan Survival) stance on the issue. Unlike the WWF’s stance in the video at the top of this blog, we don’t believe it is good enough for product manufacturers to simply buy CSPO palm oil. Rather, they should insist that the oil they purchase comes from the Identity Preserved (IP) or Segregated (SG) supply chain models of the RSPO. We think it’s a pretty good idea.

Whether or not we can trust the processes of the RSPO to deliver IP and SG effectively is another question. We don’t discount Friends of the Earths’ comment that joining the RSPO may be a  disingenuous move by some producers to receive a premium for their oil.

We believe that a lot of products benefit greatly form palm oil. It’s an excellent ingredient in a lot of great products. Boycotting the palm oil industry all together will cause a lot of trouble for local people trying to survive in Malaysia and Indonesia.

We believe a lot of smaller companies producing their own lines of products may not be aware of the full extent of the palm oil issue and how the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) system works. They may unwittingly believe they are taking effective, responsible action by using CSPO (Certified Sustainable Palm Oil) in their products.

That is where we think YOU can come into the picture and help. If a company is making a great product that you love but they are only using CSPO palm oil, write to them and ask them if they would consider using the Identity Preserved (IP) or Segregated (SG) supply chains of palm oil in their products.

With all that being said, we are only newbies to this issue ourselves so we are open to further guidance and information that may enlighten us.


Other Resources For Further Investigation If You Are Interested.

Peace,

Phil and Nashua,

Founders of The Organic Warriors.

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