Katherine Rich: The good oil


Imagine that a European country bans New Zealand lamb because of a dodgy shipment attributed to something that a couple of cowboy sheep farmers did. We would be outraged, and rightly so. Blaming a whole country and threatening to blacklist a vital industry and the thousands of farmers who rely on it for their livelihood all because of the failure of a few would be unjust, to say the least.

But that’s what’s happening over palm oil for the small run-holders in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, which account for 85% of the world’s production.

The Unmask Palm Oil campaign, launched recently to pressure the Government to tighten labelling laws so consumers can tell when palm oil is in a product, could have that very effect. This campaign has little to do with the benefits or otherwise of palm oil (although there is evidence to show it is one of the lesser harmful vegetable oils and is beneficial to our diets, similar to that of olive oil) and a lot to do with a global movement pushing for a boycott because of the felling of native forests to make way for plantations, and the subsequent threat to the orang-utan and other species. They want the world to be palm-oil free.

Many of the claims about palm oil mislead consumers by giving them the impression that it is all bad. This is untrue. Their claims, if successful, could actually have the opposite effect by undermining sustainability initiatives, increasing poverty, and speeding up land clearances.

The fact is that palm oil is used widely the world over in many food and grocery products, and when grown on acceptable farming land is the most environmentally sustainable, cost effective, and versatile vegetable oil available today. It’s also the most productive vegetable oil crop. Other oils can require up to 10 times the land to produce the same amount, therefore shifting to an alternate oil to appease environmental activists can end up putting greater pressure on the environment.   

The palm oil industry employs hundreds of thousands of working families in countries on the equator and produces something like NZ$27 billion in export earnings each year. So, for them, this is a vital crop.

For many, it’s the difference between survival and abject poverty.

Some of the world’s poorest people rely on the crop for their very survival, and it is they who would be most affected by a palm-oil-free world. Many of these smallholders produce oil sustainably, supporting their families. Some of the larger operations provide infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, and roads. The World Bank credits the crop with lifting millions of people out of poverty over the past 50 years. 

Contrary to popular belief, conservation is a big focus in the palm oil world.

According to the World Bank, Malaysia insists all waste be converted into useful products, with palm kernel used for cattle feed, fertilisers, or conversion into bio-gas for electricity generation. It also helps its small farmers replant old plantations with improved seedlings to increase yields. The forestry and wildlife departments have policies that have resulted in 56 per cent of land being under permanent forest cover, and this has even resulted in reports that the orang-utan population there has stabilised or even increased.

In Sarawak, the Government, which oversees more than 50,000 hectares of smallholdings, actively supports the preservation and rehabilitation of riparian reserves, preservation of high conservation-value forests, and ensures that small farmers practice low-impact, environmental cultivation practices.

In Indonesia, the biggest oil producer, Golden Agri-Resources, last month launched a pilot project to protect high-carbon-stock forests, a move lauded by Greenpeace as “crucial for finally breaking the link between palm oil and deforestation”. And the government said it was prepared to revoke the licences of companies that do not have a Sustainable Palm Oil certificate by next year.  The certificate ensures that palm oil producers will not add to deforestation and destruction of carbon-rich peat lands.

Then there is the work of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an international association that brings together companies, governments and even groups such as the World Wildlife Fund to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil. They do great work and their influence is expanding.

The issue is not palm oil as a crop – it’s the increase in widespread clearances of native forestry for a number of uses such as agricultural production, human shelter, and the alleviation of human poverty. Activists might equally point the finger at these.

There’s no doubt deforestation is a problem, and FGC members continue to review their supply chains to source sustainable oil, with some committing to full sustainable supply by 2015.   

The issue is not as black and white as many would like to present and it’s a lot more than just about cuddly orang-utans – we all want to see them survive. It’s also about local villagers’ livelihoods, and it’s where the balance is that matters.

The industry is well aware that some producers have to lift their game. But the game is changing, as is seen by recent announcements, and we should support organisations such as the RSPO and governments working together and not pretend all palm oil is bad.