Palm oil has been a hot topic for some time now. In the metaphorical sense as a very contested issue but also literally – because of its chemical characteristics, which make him the best choice for frying, spreads, frosting, creams or biofuel. Palm oil has higher productivity compared to other vegetable oils such as rapeseed or soy oil and it also needs less inputs. That allows us to produce a lot of cheap products. It is an important export commodity for countries such as Indonesia or Malaysia. It can’ t be denied that its production brought about economic growth. But so did the export-oriented textile industry e.g. in Bangladesh and that definitely wasn’t only positive process. Some say palm oil production is a solution to food insecurity, others claim it increases it in the long-term.
The problem with palm oil is that vast forest areas of Indonesia, Malaysia and increasingly in Africa or Latin America are cut down to make space for palm oil monocultures, threatening biodiversity and sustainable development. There are worries it benefits mostly the big plantation owners or state officers rather than local people. Deforestation due to large plantations is connected with damaging fires in Indonesia. The working conditions on the plantations are described as quite harsh and there are claims of illegal land grabbing. This can lead to loss of smallholder’s food security by exchanging their self-sustained farming for commercial palm oil growing. Not to blame the evil corporations for all of it, people may decide voluntarily to sell their land or grow palm oil in the vision of a better livelihood. That still doesn’t mean it isn’t problematic.
Product labels in the EU did not present information about palm oil content until 2011. Later officers approved a law that binds all producers to clearly state if their product contains palm oil. That may have been the moment of public realization that it is almost everywhere. Any random product from peanut butter, Nutella, to your daily skin cream. Thanks to the actions of many scientists and activists, public in several European countries adopted the issue of palm oil with great urgency. We still hold a very emotional outlook on nature and food, so for some reason destruction of rainforests makes many people worry more than for example the sweatshop production conditions.
How much power do consumers actually have in influencing the morality of food chains and can they make a real difference? I´d like to give an example from my home country, Czechia.
The debates in the media and public pressure have lead to many companies changing their behaviour. Recently, an application was developed that helps Czech consumers to fast-scan products in supermarkets for palm oil presence. Several producers (Emco, Alik, Prima) exchanged palm oil for other alternative or try to avoid it using different technology, despite fears of food becoming more expensive. On the international level, changes can also be observed. Unilever now sources 100% of its palm oil from sustainable production. McDonald’s uses mostly certified palm oil. As well as other companies like cosmetic giant LÓreal. There are also many initiatives trying to develop a completely environmentally safe alternative to palm oil such as oil derived from yeast or algae.
But does that make the production more moral? Czech minister of environment (and other politicans) condemned using palm oil as biofuel and some aspects of the industry as unethical, but that’s it. The public pressure is said to be one of the reasons for prolonged moratorium issued by Indonesian president. The moratorium restricts granting land rights for more palm oil production a gives time to re-think government’s strategy. But the production in Indonesia and Malaysia is still rising as well as consumption worldwide. The proportion of sustainably sourced oil is only around 15% of the total production. Can all production of palm oil be sustainable or will it be as marginal as Fairtrade? Producers will only produce sustainable palm oil, if there is a will from consumers. Even though the sustainable production is slowly rising, there has been reports about demand being lower than the offer.
Furthermore, the replacement of palm oil with an alternative such as rapeseed or soybean oil is also problematic. Rapeseed oil production is much more extensive and there are concerns it would be grown on land that could be used for staple food (e.g. the case of biofuels in Europe). Soy is definitely not the solution, already causing depletion of soil in countries such as Brazil (more about the 2006 soy moratorium here). With that said, between 2002 and 2012, Indonesia lost rainforest cover in the size of the area half of England. What is more, there is an agreement, that palm oil plays a vital role in Indonesia’s economy, so all hope is going towards the production done in a more sustainable way or developing better technologies. Conservation is also an issue – it is estimated that with some level of protection, the land actually has more value (in terms of long-term sustainability), than when used solely for intensive palm oil production.
The main problem lies in the consumption. Consumers have the power to influence morality of food chains, but they are also part of the problem. When the consumption was still low and localized, it wasn’t a big deal. But as the population grew, so did the market for palm oil. In the EU, 50 % goes to food – mostly high processed products, however biofuels also play important part. But actually EU consumes only around 10% of the world’s production – the most is actually consumed by China, Indonesia and Malaysia. Even if European consumers start being increasingly conscious about their shopping choices, the middle class in Asian emerging economies is growing and does not necessarily care so much. That might change in the future, if the observed pattern of growing income and concern for nature protection along with smaller family size takes place in Asia. The quest for sustainability continues: development with respect to the environment as well as the lifestyle and economic needs of locals.