Palm Oil and Tropical Deforestation


Is there a sustainable solution?

Palm oil and tropical deforestation 

Tropical forests are home to more than half of the world’s plant and animal species. Hundreds of millions of people live in and depend on tropical forests for their survival. However, this beautiful natural resource is at risk because corporate agriculture and timber companies are clearing the forests. Tropical deforestation accounts for about 15 percent of global warming pollution in the world today—which is more than the heat-trapping emissions from all the cars, trucks, ships, and planes on earth combined.
Indonesia and Malaysia, the nations with the largest tropical forests in Asia, are by far the dominant producers of palm oil on the world market today. Their tropical forests are being cleared to make room for new palm oil plantations.  These forests also contain enormous amounts of carbon in their trees and soils. When these trees are cut down and burned, hundreds of tons of carbon dioxide are emitted into the atmosphere for every acre of forest that is cleared.

Furthermore, considerable areas of the rain forests of Indonesia and Malaysia are on tropical peat soils. Peat is mostly carbon, and when the forest over it is cleared, the peat begins to oxidize and decompose. As a result, many more tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere over the succeeding years.

Indonesia is the world’s third largest emitter of global warming pollution, after China and the United States, and its emissions come overwhelmingly from deforestation. Malaysia also emits a great deal of global warming pollution because of deforestation. This deforestation is a major threat to the biodiversity of tropical rain forests. Southeast Asian rain forests have more species than even those of Amazonia and the Congo Basin, including endangered species like the orangutan.

Palm oil at your grocery store 

Palm oil is used in thousands of products that many people use every day, from baked goods and ice cream to household cleaning products and shampoo. If you take a few minutes to look at the ingredients list on some of the products at the grocery store, you will probably see palm oil or palmitate listed frequently. 

Palm oil is a highly saturated fat, and many food companies have been replacing the partially-hydrogenated oils in their food with palm oil because palm oil is trans-fat free. There has been a big movement away from trans-fats because of widely publicized health risks. However, there have been numerous studies showing that because palm oil is so high in saturated fat, it is not a healthy alternative. Unfortunately, the high saturation of the oil, which makes it solid rather than liquid at room temperature, gives it properties that are appealing to many food, household cleaning, and toiletry product manufacturers.

While palm oil seems to be in nearly everything, it is in most of these products in a very small amount. Thus, switching to a different type of oil that is more sustainably grown oil and/or buying deforestation-free palm oil should not be difficult for the companies that produce these goods. 

Deforestation-free palm oil? 

Today, many corporations are aware of the environmental problems associated with palm oil. This knowledge comes in part due to the hard work of many environmental groups and their activists. It is possible for palm oil to be grown without destroying tropical forests.

Palm oil can be grown on degraded land instead of forested land, and existing palm oil plantations can increase crop yields to avoid the need to further expand into forests. Businesses that want to sell deforestation-free products will need to work with their suppliers to set high standards for any palm oil they use. There are alternatives vegetable oils that do not drive deforestation that can be substituted for palm oil if a business cannot find a deforestation-free source. For more information, check out our report, Recipes for Success: Solutions for Deforestation-Free Vegetable Oils.

Sustainable Palm oil? In response to this global call for action on palm oil, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004. The RSPO today has over 650 members including oil palm producers, palm oil processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks and investors, and NGOs working on environmental, social, and development issues.

Though the RSPO provides criteria for “certified sustainable palm oil” and offers that certification, members of the RSPO are not required to be certified or use certified sustainable palm oil. Additionally, RSPO certified palm oil is not guaranteed to be 100 percent deforestation-free.  

Through 2012, the RSPO will be considering changes to its standards, which will be voted on in November 2012. This provides a key opportunity for the RSPO to address the holes in their standards that potentially allow forests to be cleared and palm oil plantations to drive climate change. 

Green Palm Certificates Another way that companies are trying to counteract the negative impacts of palm oil use is through the purchase of Green Palm Certificates. Companies that buy these are supporting sustainable palm oil, but not changing the ingredients in their own products.  They buy these certificates, which give a small amount of funds to sustainable growers, and then buy whatever palm oil they want regardless of its sustainability. 

Moving forward While both the RSPO and Green Palm Certificates are well-intentioned, they do not solve the major problems associated with the production of palm oil. It is important to educate the companies that are working within the RSPO about the need to tighten standards and to insist that until standards are higher, companies stand up for tropical forests and insist on using only deforestation-free sources of vegetable oils.


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