First, let me preface this post by saying that I am not the expert. I have had the opportunity to converse with a variety of people with diverse backgrounds and opinions. The assimilation of these opinions in combination with a modest amount of research provides the context for this post. I highly encourage you to do your own research to better understand the issues behind current palm oil production. The absolute truth is that the subject is much more complex than at first glance. Most of the reporting out there is coming from those who are not directly affected by palm oil plantations and more often than not have little familiarity with what is actually happening on the ground. I am grateful for the dialogue that continues to reveal new perspectives. However, with my own little understanding, please take what I have to say with a grain of salt and use this as launching point to dig deeper on your own. The expansion of plantations encroaching on the forests and lack of regulations in palm oil production are important issues that must be taken seriously.
One of the most pervasive threats to the biodiversity of Borneo is habitat fragmentation. As in many tropical regions around the world, a large portion of Borneo’s forests have been cut down for oil palm plantations. This is extremely problematic as it decreases the area of suitable habitat while increasing extinction rates and reducing essential ecosystem services. Animals with large ranges, in particular, are considerably under threat. Ongoing research is investigating wildlife response to habitat fragmentation and assisting conservation management that seeks to increase the persistence of plant & animal species. The loss of rainforest not only endangers wildlife but also threatens critical ecosystem services such as the production of O2 and sequestration of CO2 from some of the world's largest naturally occurring carbon sinks . Additionally, despite the adverse effects of pesticides on human health and the environment, toxic pesticides and fertilizers are commonly used in palm oil plantations.
There is a misconception that these concerns can be addressed when companies simply ban the use of palm oil in their products or consumers choose not to purchase these products. However, it is not that simple. Depending on who you talk to you will hear a variety of perspectives. In producing countries, millions of farmers and their families work in palm oil. For those who have family members making a living working on the plantations the income can be crucial as it directly assists in putting their children through school and feeding their family. It isn’t unusual here for a child to not make it past sixth grade. Palm oil plays an essential role in the reduction of poverty in these areas. Discontinuing production altogether would ignite substantial problems for the people who support their families by working in the palm industry and could be the means to a college education.
Others speak about the danger in eliminating the palm oil market by decreasing demand. There is a realistic fear that if people stopped buying palm and the market crashed that it would actually create larger problems. These problems could include anything from organized crime, increased deforestation from illegal logging or other agricultural land use conversion, or a resurgence of illegal animal trade. Palm productivity is much greater than other commodities like soybean. One hectare of oil palm plantation is able to produce up to ten times more than other oilseed crops. Substituting palm oil with other types of vegetable oil would actually mean that much larger amounts of land would be required. In this context, palm oil seems like a much better crop choice. Nonetheless, palm is rooted in the same challenging monoculture system that relies on the success of one crop and can wreak havoc on the environment.
As you can tell by now the oil palm industry is extremely complex. The best solution to all of these problems is to ensure you are buying products that contain sustainable palm oil. So can oil palm production be regulated? What exactly does a sustainable palm oil model look like? How can we support this initiative? The most immediate solution is to establish and demand a sustainable palm industry with high set standards. Within this model there would need to be a zero-deforestation policy, an increase in implementing biological corridors, conversion methods to produce biofuel, and a reduction of agrochemical pesticide use. The result of this gradual transition is an increasing amount of palm oil in our products that has been produced and sourced in a sustainable manner.
Many of these things may seem out of reach if you are a consumer that lives a million miles away. Still, there are little things we can do to help establish these goals. By sharing this information, we are doing our part in increasing the knowledge and awareness of a major global issue. We can pay attention to where we spend our money when purchasing products and look for a sustainable certified palm product. If they're not available at your local grocery store then you can make a request for them to stock it. Furthermore, donating to conservation research or environmental organizations is a great way to help fund this critical transition to sustainable palm practices. Advocating for sustainable palm is important yet still optimistic. In practice there needs to be strict enforcement. It is a good practice to be optimistic while staying based in reality. At the end of the day, if you are a person who likes to breathe fresh air, drink clean water, and support the persistence of all other life on this planet…. then this is the reason why sustainable palm matters.
To find out more visit Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil
- Create biological corridors
- Establish policies that avoid conversion of forests
- Reduce agrochemical usage
- Implement best management practices to increase palm productivity
- Stricter protection of forests
- Eliminate the loopholes
- Biogas capture requirements