no palm oil, no problem? not really.
by martina chow, 3rd year politics and international relations student at LSE
In March 2019, the EU placed a ban on the use of palm oil for biofuel purposes as part of its aim to cut emissions by at least 40% by 2030 compared to its 1990 levels. Their rationale was pretty straight forward. On the one hand, global annual palm oil production is expected to reach 240 million tonnes by 2050. But at the same time, palm oil production is also responsible for an immense amount of deforestation and in turn, a loss of biodiversity and wildlife, and of course, carbon emissions. In fact, Greenpeace points to deforestation for palm oil plantations as a key cause for Indonesia’s position as the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter. The solution? A ban on the use of palm oil biofuels, where the EU is a key importer alongside China and India. Palm oil prices have in fact dropped by 18% since the start of 2018 primarily due to the strong EU-backed environmental campaign against it. This war is not a new one.
But while the bright “NO palm oil” sticker meticulously pasted on your jar of organic peanut butter, eco washing liquid or fair-trade chocolate bar may appease your consumer conscience and seems like an environmental no brainer, it’s not. So, let me (try) to unpack it the best I can.
Though the EU is right to recognize and act on the environmental concerns associated with palm oil, the outright ban is a questionable solution that comes with both consequence and controversy. First, the consequences. The ban (and campaign) against palm oil leaves open the question of what can replace palm oil as a commodity. Palm oil is an incredibly productive and efficient crop used for processed food products, cosmetics and cleaning. It is also crucial for food security in Asia and Africa. The EU has argued for soy oil rather than palm oil, concluding that the former is less environmentally harmful.
But again, this is not so simple. Opting for oilseed replacements (such as soybean) in food products would require a minimum of 50 million additional hectares of prime farmland to produce the same amount generated by palm oil. Similarly, a possible alternative to be used in cosmetic and cleaning products, the well-known coconut, can only yield less than 10% of the oil generated by palm trees and would therefore require ten times the amount of cultivated land in order to meet the demands met by palm oil. In sum, the outright ban and promotion of lesser studied alternatives will not resolve the issue. Take the environmental issues associated with soybean production in Brazil, for instance, which has seen habitat loss of over 105,000 square kilometers in the Cerrado biome; and in Latin America as a whole, where it has been responsible for 82% of deforestation compared to 17% resulting from palm oil. Banning the import of palm oil for biofuel purposes in the EU, then, may encourage higher levels of deforestation in Latin America (amongst other places) to meet increasing demands for soybean.
In that sense, not only are the alternatives to palm oil dubious, but this trendy campaign against palm oil also curbs any progress made to instead promote its sustainability. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has developed a set of environmental and social criteria for companies to comply with in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil. It has over 4000 members globally who represent 40% of the industry across stakeholders from its seven key sectors. Now, over 20% of palm oil plantations have been certified by RSPO standards.
What does sustainable palm oil entail? For starters, it aims to ensure that no primary forests or areas with significant concentrations of biodiversity or fragile ecosystems and crucial to the needs of local communities are cleared for palm oil plantations. Additionally, it requires plantations to reduce the use of pesticides and fires (the ‘slash-and-burn’ mechanism for clearing, especially); treat their workers according to local and international labour rights; and consult local communities concerning the development of plantations in their land. These ultimately look to reduce the negative impacts of palm oil production. The problem then is not simply palm oil, but the unsustainable practices used in palm oil production – or the production of any oil, for that matter – that encourage rampant deforestation and carbon emissions.
And last but not least, the controversy. As it stands, 85% of global palm oil is produced in Malaysia and Indonesia, meaning that (surprise!) the effects of the ban are going to be disproportionately felt by the economies and the populations of these countries. This of course presents challenges for domestic development and employment. For example, the livelihoods of 16 million Indonesians is at risk as 45% of Indonesia’s palm oil is produced by smallholder farmers. The ban is in that sense accused of being a discriminatory ban by Malaysian and Indonesian governments, and an example of EU protectionism – aimed at protecting producers of rapeseed oil and sunflower oil in the Union, even if it is at the expense of the industries and communities of the developing world.
The big issue is that this ban is being justified under the mantle of sustainability, when it is actually a simplified solution (and distraction) – with environmental and political consequences – to a highly complex problem. This is part of a common problem present in attempts to tackle climate change. The campaign against palm oil was an easy one to make and get on board with, but it doesn’t actually address the problem at its core, nor does it push for the reforms that matter. Where are the EU’s bans on fracking within its own territory? On future fossil fuel extraction projects? On coal mining? Yet again, it’s so easy to impose bans and boycotts when the burden does not lie on domestic populations and industries but on the poorer, less developed countries of the Global South.