Palm oil debate: where do you sit?

Pick up any package in a supermarket and there’s a 50% chance it’s got palm oil in: everyday items like margarines, biscuits, breads, cereals, noodles and even shampoo are often made using this popular ingredient.

If you’ve heard anything about palm oil, it’s probably with reference to environmental devastation – how its production destroys natural habitats and threatens endangered species. According to the World Wildlife Fund, an area the size of 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared each hour to make way for palm oil production. For the ethical consumer, it’s hard to do the right thing. Avoiding palm oil isn’t easy.

So why is palm oil in such high demand by manufacturers? It is said to have very useful cooking properties; stable under high temperatures, a smooth, creamy texture and an absence of smell. It has a natural preservative effect which extends the shelf life of food products. Furthermore, it is the highest-yielding vegetable oil crop and uses less than half the land required by other crops to produce the same amount of oil. In short: it’s cheap, easy to grow and lasts a long time.

The environmental impact of palm oil is significant, and with demand expected to double again by 2050 to 240 million tonnes, people are right to be concerned. The vast palm oil monoculture in Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries causes large-scale forest clearance and loss of important wildlife habitats. It also has dire consequences for soil erosion, air and water pollution.

A boycott would seem like the obvious answer, but even if you could coordinate the public to take part, would it be the right thing to do? Like every issue there is another side that needs to be considered. The countries that produce palm oil rely on it for income and the industry is said to play an important role in the reduction of poverty in these areas. In Indonesia and Malaysia, over 4.5 million people earn their living from palm oil production. Boycotting palm oil altogether would create significant problems for these people.

You might expect environment groups to be working to rid the world of palm oil completely, but many recognise that it is a major income source for developing countries, and groups such as Greenpeace are lobbying instead for more sustainable production.

In fact, there is such a thing as certified sustainable palm oil. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), formed in 2008, works to protect forests and wildlife where palm is grown. Their certification system of sustainable palm oil aims to reduce the use of pesticides and ensure fair treatment of workers. Crucially, RSPO’s standards state that no primary forest or areas with significant biodiversity of endangered species can be cleared for palm oil.

While many big retailers and well-known brands are members of the RSPO and use sustainable palm oil, it still only accounts for 21% of all palm oil consumed globally. Identifying which products use sustainable palm oil can be difficult, since they do not all feature the RSPO logo on their branding. It has been suggested that some retailers avoid using it, as they’d rather not draw attention to the fact palm oil has been used in the product in the first place.

Our insatiable appetite for highly-processed, cheap convenience foods with long shelf-lives is what’s driving demand for palm oil. Those handy biscuits, spreads and sliced loaves that we’ve come to rely on in our ever-busy lives are fuelling the massive growth of the palm oil industry.

Before the 1950s, palm oil didn’t exist in our diets. A return to eating locally-sourced, seasonal fresh food – making meals from scratch with proper ingredients – would surely be the best way to reduce demand for palm oil. In the meantime, choosing sustainable palm oil products while reducing our consumption of it is probably the best course of action.


Jemma Moran

Jemma Moran

Previously the Digital Marketing Manager at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage in Devon, Jemma is now a freelance writer and social media manager. With a passion for all things foodie and environmental, she was a judge for the Soil Association's 2016 organic awards.