Katherine Rich: Sustainable palm oil

October 2009

Reading headlines such as “Deadly Palm Oil In Your Trolley”, one could easily get the false impression that any New Zealand firm using palm oil is personally responsible for the demise of the orangutan and the world’s rainforests.

The use of palm oil has been treated like an industry dirty secret – somewhere on the environmental nasties continuum between baby seal clubbing and ocelot farming.

The reality is quite different. Most palm oil is being farmed sustainably on tracts of land that have been dedicated to production for many decades, and rather than being a recent ingredient, palm oil has been used by humans for thousands of years.

Reacting to valid conservation concerns, many food producers are already joining initiatives such as the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil and purchasing sustainably produced palm oil.

It’s time to inject some reason into this discussion because as the Auckland Zoo says, “not all palm oil is bad – if it is made from a non-destructive source, it’s fine”.
Palm oil is from the fruit of the oil palm, first used around 3000BC. When the plant came late to South East Asia in 1848 it was an important part of the area’s economic development. Commercial production on a grand scale began around the 1900s in West Africa, Asia and South America.
Palm oil was a textbook economic development success and lifted many people out of abject poverty, sustaining generations of farming families.

It’s only in the past decade that concerns have been widely raised about palm oil. During this time the production of palm oil has increased dramatically, although the growth in New Zealand has been less significant.

In New Zealand the growth in imports from Indonesia has been small – 60,452 litres in 1999 and 65,000 in 2008. However, imports more than doubled from Malaysia – 12 million litres in 1999 to 27 million litres in 2009.

There are reasons for this growth. Companies have worked hard to replace trans-fat. New Zealand consumers have changed their views on what is acceptable fat. The lard or dripping sandwiches our grandparents took to school would be frowned upon today. Suet, tallow and blubber are also fats of bygone eras.

The third and significant reason for the increased production of palm oil is one activists prefer to skim over. Much of the growing demand for palm oil has come not from the food industry at all, but from governments implementing seemingly worthy “green” agendas to develop alternative fuels.

Biofuels, previously described as “a green dream come true”, carry the main responsibility for hiked palm oil prices. This has created the stampede to open up more land for production and hardship for Asia’s poorer families as food prices rise.

The problem is not with palm oil as a crop. As a product derived from the land, it’s like any other. The problem is the dramatic mass clearing of large tracts of land to expand production in land areas where traditionally such farming has not been sustainable.

So the debate is not over whether clearing too much land will have a disastrous effect on the world’s biodiversity. It will. The issue is how to encourage the Malaysian and Indonesian governments and palm oil producers to do more to conserve their forests.

In the recent case of Cadbury chocolate, activists have failed to grasp they scored an “own goal” through the vilification of that company’s products, which could actually threaten initiatives to promote sustainable palm oil. Cadbury was castigated for the use of unsustainable palm oil, despite the fact this wasn’t true. Critics ignored the fact that the firm took great care to source sustainable palm oil at a premium price.

Activists overlooked the fact that palm oil not only is GMO-free, but it produces up to 10 times more oil per hectare than soybeans, rapeseed or sunflowers.

Production of palm oil on established plantations is far more sustainable than farming in many parts of the United Kingdom, where producers are kept afloat by massive agricultural subsidies, and where 12 percent of the country is forested, compared to 64 percent of Malaysia. We don’t hear anyone calling for boycotts of British products.

When activists crucify firms doing the right thing, it undermines the success of practical attempts to ensure crops are sustainable. If firms abandon certification programmes because activists brand all palm oil as bad, even when it is sustainably produced, the whole system of certification could collapse – leaving biodiversity even more at risk.

People who call for blanket bans on all palm oil need to think about the implications. It might make the middle classes feel good, but it’s not going to feed children, or pay the wages of those in developing countries where the legitimate farming of palm oil has been carried out for over a century.

Shutting down the multibillion-dollar palm oil industry would not only damage the recovery of developing economies hit hard by the world financial crisis, it would remove a way of life for millions of people.