Palm oil production is a major cause of deforestation, loss of habitat and – let’s not forget – dismal working conditions for people in growing areas, mainly in Southeast Asia. But Europe needs palm oil and palm oil producers need European consumers to drive lasting change.
Europe already produces millions of tonnes of vegetable oils each year, but imports still outweigh production, according to FAOSTAT data. Palm oil accounts for about 6m tonnes of annual imports, but with ongoing environmental concerns linked to its production, some European NGOs, businesses and consumers have started to turn away from palm oil completely.
It’s an impulse I understand. Theoretically, reducing demand should reduce impact – but that’s not the case. Rejecting all palm oil could have grim consequences, as producers will continue to find a market in regions that aren’t so choosy about social and environmental issues.
Instead, while Europe still commands enough of the market, food and consumer goods companies, NGOs and consumers could make a huge difference in promoting sustainable production.
European consumption of palm oil is gradually being dwarfed by Indian and Chinese consumption, where imports stand at 7m tonnes and 6.5m tonnes a year respectively, and are continuing to grow rapidly. Together, these two markets already account for 37% of global palm oil consumption, but sustainability is not a concept that’s taken hold, as manufacturers look for the cheapest fat for their products – that fat is palm oil.
Taking aim at the RSPO
As German companies pledged to source 100% sustainable palm oil in Berlin last week, protestors gathered with chainsaws and orangutan costumes. They claim that the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a greenwashing campaign. However, like so many issues to do with food production and consumption, the reality is much more complex than the notion that companies are duping the public so they can get the largest slice of the pie.
The main problem that protestors have with the RSPO is that they claim its standards are not strong enough. Yet slamming the RSPO for all of palm oil’s problems seems an odd focus.
Those who attend its meetings are clearly driven to change the supply chain. Some think it can be done faster than others, and there is disagreement over priorities, but essentially their goal is the same: ensuring a truly sustainable palm oil supply decoupled from deforestation and social injustice.
Some NGOs also back the RSPO – and as executive director of the Orangutan Land Trust Michelle Desilets astutely pointed out in Berlin last week, her decision to support the organisation means her reputation stands or falls with it too. It’s a risk, but it’s also testament to the work the RSPO is doing that many NGOs are willing to take that risk.
What about home-grown oils?
Palm oil is by far the most efficient oil available, yielding up to four times as much per hectare than other vegetable oils. Simply put, Europe would need to clear a lot of land to source an extra 6m tonnes of vegetable oil from within its own borders.
But it is not as simple as switching between oils. Palm oil, with its nearly 50-50 mix of saturated and unsaturated fats, is already a substitute for other, less healthy animal fats and hydrogenated oils. Crucially, it is solid at room temperature, meaning that for most palm-oil-containing foods (and consumer goods), there is no viable alternative.
Europe leads the way on many sustainability issues, and as palm oil demand expands, those high European sustainability standards should be the gold standard.
There’s still a long way to go, but the Netherlands, France, Germany, Belgium and the UK have pledged to source only 100% sustainable palm oil within the coming 2-3 years. If they are to meet their goal, sustainable supply will need to expand drastically. Personally, I am hopeful that pledges like these could make a real difference.
By all means, European companies, NGOs and consumers should continue to challenge the palm oil industry’s sustainability claims.
Change depends on it.