Palm Oil: The double edged sword


The controversy regarding palm oil ultimately boils down to a key balancing question: How do we manage sustaining the current population against preserving limited resources?

The world population has roughly doubled since 1920 to about 7.6 billion people as of 2018. It took over 200,000 years for the world's population to reach 1 billion and only an additional 200 more to reach 7 billion. This growth is largely fueled by the benefits of technology, globalization, and other achievements that have made it possible to feed so many mouths from current resources. For example, in 1950, the average farmer’s output fed about 27 people. As of 2016, the average farmer’s output feeds around 164 people*.

Prior civilizations: a crystal ball into what happens when the balance is upset

In prior civilizations, historians observed that populations often grew in times of abundant harvest, which could sometimes span decades. However, many of these civilizations would ultimately fall victim to deforestation, overhunting, overfishing, erosion of fertile ground, and other factors. Many of these outcomes were caused by the strain a growing population placed on limited or non-recovering resources. Whenever the population consumes more resources at a rate faster than they can be reproduced, competition for the remaining resources results, ultimately leading to collapse via war, conflict, and starvation. Examples from history include the Anasazi of southwestern North America, the Maya of Central America, and Easter Island. But there are also examples of civilizations such as the Norse in Iceland who after realizing the detrimental impact their actions had on their environment (namely deforestation), immediately sought to correct and mitigate the situation. These historical examples should serve as education for us today as we navigate our own environmental challenges.

Palm oil: the cost-effective oil enabling population growth

In the context of all of this, it is fair to say that the world population is growing at a pace that is threatening our resources. Palm oil has helped contribute to this growth. It requires 10x less land than the other top 3 seed crops (soya, rapeseed, and sunflower) and is found in nearly 50% of consumer goods from items like packaged foods, body lotion, lipstick, and more. Palm oil uses only 7% of the land worldwide to grow all vegetable oil crops but yields around 50% of total vegetable oil production. It is a very efficient crop, making it cheaper to produce vs. other oils.

Deforestation: a triple whammy

Palm grows best in tropical environments around the equator, the same areas where you'd find rain forests and jungles. As a result, the demand for palm oil and the farmland necessary to grow it has led to wide deforestation. Besides endangering animals and the frail ecosystem within these tropical landscapes, palm oil production has led to increased carbon emissions in the following ways:

  • Trees that would capture greenhouse gases humans produce are eliminated
  • When clearing forests through the burning technique, stored carbon within the trees are released into the atmosphere
  • What most often replaces the now-vanished forest, livestock and crops, generate massive amounts of even more greenhouse gases

This creates a triple whammy impact on our total carbon footprint. Deforestation on its own causes about 10% of worldwide carbon emissions and robs us of a crucial weapon in battling greenhouse gases. **

The root of all evil has many complexities

The simple answer to all of this would be, on the surface, to stop all future palm oil production that leads to deforestation. However, this would have other adverse consequences: 

  • The livelihood of many farmers directly relies on palm oil production. Palm protection alone has lifted 1.3 million people out of poverty in Indonesia alone***. 
  • Consumers benefit from affordable foods and goods that are produced with palm oil. 
  • Producing vegetable oil via less efficient crops could result in even more deforestation.
What's being done?

As you can see, the subject of palm oil is extremely complex. Several organizations have stepped up to the plate to facilitate the sustainable production of palm oil. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has worked for over a decade to drive an industry-wide agreement on adopting a global standard. We at b.a.r.e. soaps source our palm oil from producers certified by the Rain Forest Alliance (a RSPO member), who have to adhere to the Sustainable Agriculture 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.

Certification, however is not the total solution. If it were perfect, deforestation wouldn’t be happening at the current levels. However, certification has led to increased transparency, and in 2017, RSPO reported that a total of 189,777 hectares of high conservation value were preserved from palm oil expansions and are currently managed by RSPO members. This grew 21% from 2016. Independent studies have also shown the impact certification has on protecting orangutan habitats and limiting deforestation, in some cases by a factor of 25 times compared to non-certified areas.

You vote with your dollar. Inform your vote.

We all share responsibility when it comes to this topic. At the most micro level, every consumer votes through how they spend their dollars. Our goal is to educate you on this complex and multi-faceted issue, allowing you to make informed and conscious decisions while shopping as you consider both the benefits and opportunity costs of different products.

Resources cited:

*https://www.statista.com/statistics/207339/number-of-persons-fed-per-farmer-in-the-us-since-1940/

**https://www.rainforest-alliance.org/articles/relationship-between-deforestation-greenhouse-gas-emissions

***https://www.friendsofeurope.org/publication/sustainable-palm-oil-production-can-lift-communities-out-poverty