Ethics of Palm Oil: The Good, The Bad, and The Solutions

Environmental Blog submission by Jordan Rydman, Arizona State University, April 2020. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

Palm oil, harvested from the fruit of oil palm trees (Elaeis guineensis), is present in an estimated 50% of everyday goods used in the United States alone (WWF, 2020). These goods might come in the form of shampoo, lipstick, cleaning supplies, or most notably, our food. The U.S. is the 9th largest consumer of palm oil in the world, consuming only around 10% of the amount consumed in Indonesia: the country ranked #1 for palm oil consumption globally (USDA, 2019).

A product as in-demand and versatile as palm oil acts as the source of livelihood for many communities in Southeast Asia, contributing significantly to the GDP of developing economies (Koh & Wilcove, 2007). The world has become dependent on this cheap and versatile oil. However, the ethics behind this mass-consumption have been questioned in recent years as the production of palm has played an increasingly dominant role in the deforestation of Southeast Asian rainforests, and consequent severe losses in biodiversity (Koh & Wilcove, 2007). The industry has grown to the point where it has the capacity to single-handedly put entire species on the brink of extinction in just a handful of years (Gibbens, 2018). Some would argue that the production of palm has too negative an impact on the environment to be considered ethical and therefore should be banned outright by governments. Others deem palm oil as essential to our markets and way of life. This essay will discuss arguments from both sides of this debate in order to conclude how to ethically respond to the issues surrounding palm oil.

Palm oil serves many purposes in enhancing the quality of everyday products around the world, both edible and inedible. It’s consistency is desirable for cosmetic products, it is resistant to oxidization which gives a longer shelf-life to products containing it, it is considered a healthier alternative to other oils for its lack of trans fats, it is ideal for frying foods due to its stability at high temperatures, and its lack of color and odor prevent it from impacting flavors of food (WWF, 2020; Sinaga, 2013). Regardless of palm oil’s unique combination of quality and versatility, due to the environmental ramifications of producing it, some argue that it is necessary to transition the world towards using different crop oils which might be more resource-efficient. However, this hypothetical solution is founded on a lack of understanding of the efficiency of palm production compared to alternative oils and is based on the assumption that palm production is comparatively inefficient. Palm oil has been determined to be the most efficient crop on Earth and is approximately 4-10 times more resource-efficient than other plant oils such as soy, rapeseed, sunflower, or coconut (Nomanbhay et al., 2017). Approximately 35% of the world’s vegetable oil is provided by palm crops, which occupy only 10% of the world’s vegetable oil farmland (WWF, 2020). Palm oil also “requires significantly less fertilizer, pesticides and fuel per unit produced than rapeseed and soybean” (Shimizu & Desrochers, 2012), leading to fewer issues related to agricultural run-off, pollution, and worker health issues caused by exposure to industrial farm chemicals. If the palm oil industry were to simply be replaced with different types of oil, the associated issues of biodiversity loss, deforestation, and environmental degradation would not disappear, but instead would simply shift to different areas of the world where other oils would be produced. This oil production would simply threaten different sets of species. Suffering on the part of at-risk wildlife would not be prevented, but instead exacerbated per unit in sensitive ecological regions such as the Amazon or The Congo. Each unit of oil would require more land to be deforested, more chemicals to be used, more water spent, and more innocent wildlife to be harmed or killed in the process.

Additionally, palm oil is one of the most critically important crops for Southeast Asian emerging economies (Koh & Wilcove, 2007). For example, in 2018, palm oil contributed 37.9% of Malaysia’s agricultural GDP, or nearly 3% of the nation's total GDP for that year (Department of Statistics, Malaysia Official Report, 2019). Malaysia is the second-largest producer of palm in the world, following Indonesia. Together, the two nations produce approximately 90% of the world’s palm oil (Yale University Global Forest Atlas, n.d.). It should be noted that much of this palm oil production is divorced from massive industrial operations that one might expect of such a booming industry; In fact, “many oil-palm plantations are effectively self-sufficient villages, providing not only employment, but also housing, basic amenities such as water and electricity, and infrastructure including roads, medical care, and schools for the families of their employees” (Koh & Wilcove, 2007). In this, a substantial amount of rural communities are reliant on palm agriculture for their livelihood, and the boycotting or banning of palm oil would have devastating socio-economic repercussions for the millions of people in Indonesia and Malaysia alone who are employed by the industry, as well as their dependents (Sinaga, 2013).

Due to the efficiency of producing palm oil, it also plays an important role in feeding the growing population of our planet. Among the top countries in the world for palm oil consumption are Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and the Philippines, all of which are considered to be developing nations according to the UN Human Development Report (2019). In developing communities, there are higher rates of food insecurity and malnourishment, leading to socio-economic issues related to poor health such as lower school attendance rates or higher inequality rates (Sood, 2010). Therefore, the demand for affordable, accessible, and nutrient-rich foods is high, as they are crucial to the well-being of food-insecure populations (Sood, 2010). Palm oil helps to aid in issues of food insecurity and malnourishment by providing an affordable and accessible source of Vitamin A, Vitamin E, and anti-oxidants (Shimizu & Desrochers, 2012). It also is considered a healthier alternative to hydrogenated oils or animal fats that contain trans fats, associated with heart disease, and increases in unhealthy cholesterol (Shimizu & Desrochers, 2012). One might argue that the prevalence of palm oil in the diets of impoverished people around the world helps to lower overall healthcare costs for families who otherwise might be at a higher risk of heart diseases or cholesterol issues. By banning or boycotting palm oil, more expensive and less healthy oils may be the only oils still available to the people most in need of nutrient-rich foods, potentially leaving many food-insecure people even more malnourished than before, with an increased need for healthcare services, and with fewer financial resources to access those services.

Despite the benefits associated with palm oil, many activist groups around the world have vocally denounced the entire industry, judging the consequences as too severe to ignore. The environmental impacts of palm oil production, particularly over the last few decades, have been catastrophic. Palm is grown in very sensitive ecological settings in Southeast Asia. For example, Borneo and Sumatra, two islands off the coast of Indonesia, account for 96% of Indonesia’s palm oil production (USDA Foreign Agriculture Service, 2013). These islands also happen to be of the most biodiverse habitats in the world and are the only locations on Earth where orangutans, tigers, rhinos, and elephants all live together (Vidal, 2013). Yet, as a result of palm agriculture and correlated deforestation, scientists warn that “many of Indonesia’s species could be extinct in the wild within 20–30 years. Orangutan numbers are in precipitous decline, only 250–400 tigers remain and fewer than 100 rhinos are left in the forests” (Vidal, 2013). Between 1999 and 2015, half of the already-critical population of Orangutans was wiped out as a direct result of palm oil farming; this equals around 150,000 orangutan lives, and the tragic specicide brought the species to the point of critical endangerment with the destruction of their habitat (Voigt et al., 2018). “Official figures show more than half of Indonesia’s rainforest, the third-largest swath in the world, has been felled in a few years and permission has been granted to convert up to 70% of what remains into palm or acacia plantations” (Vidal, 2013), suggesting that this problem is on-track to worsen. If that weren’t enough, palm oil is produced using almost exclusively monoculture farming techniques, which are known to cause of a handful of environmental degradation issues such as the damaging of ecosystem resiliency, high levels of pollution, agricultural run-off contaminating waterways and bleaching coral reefs, heightening greenhouse gas levels, and the catalyzing of numerous irreversible feedback loops which exacerbate climate-change issues (Bronk & Wade, 2016). The combination of these direct and indirect environmental consequences associated with palm production warrant extreme concern, as they pose the risk of sending islands like Borneo and Sumatra into complete regime changes which not only would mean suffering on the part of wildlife but of the people who depend on natural resources to survive (Vidal, 2013).

In regard to socio-economic wellbeing, some scientists insist that palm production is the cause of widespread and severe displacement of impacted communities. For the sake of consistency, I will focus on cases across Indonesia. On its own, the dramatic deforestation funded by palm oil is expected to cause a spike in natural disasters in the coming years, such as floods, wildfires, and droughts, killing thousands and destroying sources of income and homes (Vidal 2013). Deforestation has also already resulted in a spike in violence across Indonesia, wherein 2012, over 600 major land conflicts in palm plantations were recorded (Vidal, 2013). These conflicts came with a measurable human cost—communities were uprising after their traditional forests were destroyed with some becoming violent. (Vidal, 2013). The result was some 5,000 human rights violations, 22 deaths, and hundreds of more injuries (Vidal, 2013).

On a similar note, the working conditions of those in the palm sector have been repeatedly put under ethical scrutiny. To start, the widespread monocropping necessary for palm production has resulted in a micro-level food insecurity crisis (Sinaga, 2013). Plantation workers and local people can rarely grow food crops under monocropping conditions, making it impossible for them to rely on sustenance farming or be food-independent and forcing them instead to shop at supermarkets (Sinaga, 2013). This means that low-income agriculturalist families must spend more money in order to feed themselves and their loved ones, and the result is too often malnourishment and food-insecurity (Sinaga, 2013). Furthermore, casual and unpaid laborers are rife on palm plantations, with most unpaid laborers being women and children (Sinaga, 2013). Even permanent employees are often seriously underpaid, making less than a dollar per day of intensive labor (Sinaga, 2013). Those fortunate enough to make minimum wage also struggle to survive, as the minimum wage routinely does not support decent living standards (Sinaga, 2013). The benefits that workers receive through employment are comparably scarce, often being as meek and nutritionally insufficient as “subsistence support” in the form of rice rewarded at “15 kilograms/month to a worker, with an additional 9 kilograms/month for his wife, as well as 7.5 kilograms/month for each child to a maximum of 3 children” (Sinaga, 2013). This system thrives by keeping women and children out of school so that they can work without payment in fields in an effort to increase the productivity of their paid-laborer family members (Sinaga, 2013). The result is children who are physically wasted and stunted, families unqualified to perform higher-paying skilled work, increased gender inequality, and laborers who are prone to disability and/or the chronic health effects of intense labor through developmental stages (Sood, 2010; Sinaga, 2013; Stotts, n.d.).

It is my opinion that the negative ramifications associated with palm production are far too dire to go without legal action. However, an outright ban on palm does not seem to be a viable or effective solution in aiding in the issue. Sustainably-produced palm oil is an emerging industry, but the lack of education surrounding palm deforestation has given it close to no consumer demand (Nastu, 2017). Increasing this demand poses a challenge, but is of urgent importance if we hope to preserve what remains of the Southeast Asian tropics, the wildlife which call it home, and the livelihoods of those who depend on it. Even consumers who are informed of the ethical issues surrounding traditional palm production are often unaware that sustainably produced palm oil exists (Nastu, 2017). Consumer awareness must be increased, and mainstreaming appropriate labeling for sustainable palm products may assist in that effort (Shanahan, 2019). However, the strictest and most commonly accepted standards for sustainable palm oil are regulated by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and only about 20% of palm oil traded around the world meets these standards, with a demand that doesn’t match the supply (Shanahan, 2019). Much of this sustainable oil never even receives its certification label, and some still criticize RSPO’s requirements for being weak or enabling companies to greenwash unsustainable products (Shanahan, 2019). All in all, it is my understanding that food labeling can at least serve as an effective transitional step, educating consumers and increasing public demand for sustainable palm. With an educated consumer base, we could influence legislators to pass laws against unethical palm oil production. Another alternative solution might be to pass legislation incrementally banning the importation of unsustainably produced palm (as opposed to banning the production), incentivizing farmers around the world to meet RSPO’s guidelines while disincentivizing unsustainable practices. Considering that around 30% of palm production is carried out by independent smallholder farms, one answer might also lie in working with these smallholder farms to introduce polyculture methods, mitigating many of the environmental and social impacts associated with monoculture by working from the bottom-up to change the culture of palm farming (Jelsma et al., 2017). In conclusion: comprehensive legislative action is desperately needed, but the palm industry should not have to die for victory to have been achieved. Instead, it must be revolutionized towards sustainability.



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