Part 2: Sustainable palm oil is flawed and that's okay
Last year, we wrote about the palm oil controversy and the steps that we’ve taken towards using sustainable palm oil by sourcing only from the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) suppliers. However, it may shock to you to hear. The RSPO falls short of being truly sustainable.
In fact, many of the certified supplies are still engaging in deforestation. They’re clearing out richly eco-diverse rainforests to make way for palm plantations. Despite all of this, we still choose to use RSPO palm oil and believe this is okay. Why?
Simply boycotting palm oil is not going to work, though it was something we considered. What may surprise you is that the US is not the number one driver of palm oil demand. China is, followed by the EU and India. While European companies are also looking for more sustainable alternatives, China and India are not. This means that the demand from those two countries alone will continue to incentivize palm oil producers to grow as much as possible, which means increased deforestation
Palm oil is the most productive vegetable oil crop per hectare. It is so efficient that it produce up to ten times more oil than other leading oilseeds. Ironically, even though palm oil production is taking place in high biodiversity areas, one could argue that other less efficient yielding crops could lead to more deforestation than palm. Nevertheless, it is clear that future increases in production seem inevitable as other developing countries grow in consumption need.
Alternative oils have their fair share of issues and lead to other environmental sustainability challenges. Take soybean oil, which requires 6x more energy, 7x more nitrogen, and 14x more pesticides per tonne produced than palm oil. So to meet the World Bank’s projected vegetable oil demand in 2020, palm oil would require 6.3 million hectares of oil palm plantation whereas soybean oil would require an additional 42 million hectares! That’s about the size of California!
The palm oil industry alleviates poverty in developing countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. Yes, deforestation is awful and its long term effects will surely be felt in the future, but also understand that from these farmers’ point of view, palm oil farming offers a long-term and stable source of income. In Malaysia, the industry provides direct employment for over half a million people and is often credited with being the fastest way of eradicating poverty. This comes at a hefty expense of the environment, but I think we can all agree that this poverty alleviation is a true positive outcome.
Palm oil doesn't require hydrogenation, which means no trans fats. So we are at an interesting dynamic where we are looking to provide healthier fats, contain costs, and still be environmentally friendly. This is obviously a fine line to balance and there’s no right answer here.
We already know that increasing demand for palm oil will increase palm oil production. Just simply boycotting it from our end will do little (it will be very hard to boycott it since it's in so many things!)- we must advocate better standards to companies that use palm oil. The first step is to ensure that they're sourcing responsible and sustainable palm oil. Even though the RSPO isn't a complete success, it's important to recognize that it's relatively new, having been founded in 2004. It takes decades to see change in the world of conservation and we believe that the RSPO will gain strides over time.
What else are we doing?
We are working towards sourcing our palm oil from Rainforest Alliance Certified Palm Oil suppliers. This alliance started in 2008 and has much more stringent requirements than RSPO.
To earn the Rainforest Alliance Certified™ seal, farms are audited annually against the SAN standard for the crop’s production. The standard’s rigorous and detailed environmental, social and economic criteria are designed to prevent deforestation, protect biodiversity and natural resources, deliver financial benefits to farmers, and support the well-being and rights of workers and local communities.
What can you do?
In the meantime, you as a consumer, can educate yourself and others on all aspects of this controversy because the right approach will need to balance farmers’ livelihood with surging palm oil demand and ensure that we preserve as much as our environment as possible.