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I don’t know much about palm oil, beyond the vaguest idea that it’s in everything we eat and also kills orangutans. Last week I went to the Zoological Society of London event “Demand for Sustainable Palm Oil: Are We Conserving Tropical Biodiversity?”

Expecting more orangutan photos, I was pleased to be educated on the drier facts of the palm oil trade and its regulation. So here’s my round-up of the basic concepts of the evening.

The speakers included representatives from a Brazilian sustainable palm oil company, the food mega-company Mondelez (I guarantee you’ve eaten something they own), the forest charity FERN and DEFRA.

The Problem

Deforestation and loss of biodiversity because of palm oil plantations was the main focus of the meeting. Oil palms are native to Africa, and can be grown anywhere tropical. Indonesia and Malaysia are the world’s leading producers, but the crop is now becoming more popular in West and Central Africa. The conservation worry is that palm oil plantations are now replacing forest habitats across the tropical belt, at an alarming rate. An analysis by Greenpeace claimed that palm oil plantations were the single biggest cause of deforestation in Indonesia between 2009 and 2011.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil and other products are extracted from the fruit of the oil palm tree, processed and sold around the world. One speaker estimated that 50% of the products on the supermarket shelves contain palm oil, labelled as “vegetable oil”. Human food is the biggest use, and animal feed comes in second, but it’s also in cosmetics, biofuel and other industries. Large amounts are used as cooking oil throughout Asia, and the EU, China and India are the three largest importers.

Current Regulation

From forest to end consumer, the supply chain is incredibly complicated. Producers range from those with gigantic monoculture plantations, through sustainable companies who buy and conserve up to 1.6 hectares of original forest per hectare of palm oil, to smallholders with a few trees each.

Most companies buy their oil from traders and don’t know where it originally comes from, so enforcing any regulation or consumer pressure is pretty hard.

There is a voluntary certification scheme called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). All the speakers talked about it but nobody seemed to like it much – the general consensus was that it’s poorly enforced and not stringent enough. However, it’s the only thing around at the moment.

Why not just boycott palm oil?

A boycott is certainly an option. The EU have brought in mandatory labelling – from 2015 anything sold in Europe will have to state in the ingredients the kind of vegetable oil – soy, palm or whatever. Mondelez man mentioned this was worrying his PR departments quite a lot.

Side note - margarine is basically palm oil in a tub.
Side note – margarine is basically palm oil in a tub.

However, if Western countries boycott palm oil in a significant way, we’ll effectively kill the market for sustainable oil. At the moment there’s no real consumer demand in China or India for traceable, ethical production. So a boycott could mean that producer countries merely stop investing in “good” palm oil plantations, and the deforestation continues at a faster rate than ever.

Palm oil is one of the highest-yielding crops per hectare, so if everyone switched to growing soy instead then it’s probable the forests would be even worse off. When one audience member asked “What should I do as a normal person shopping?”, Ms Ozinga from FERN answered that if you want to do one single thing to help preserve the rainforest, giving up soy or meat would be a much better thing to do than anything to do with palm oil.

So: it’s a bit more complicated than you’d hope. We need better enforcement in the producer countries, as well as stricter policies on sustainability to ensure the supply chain is traceable and we can trust what we’re buying.

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