Palm oil: the hidden ingredient causing an ecological disaster

palm oil
Palm oil is in our food, cleaning products and fuel. But it's destroying rainforest and contributing to climate change. Sustainable certification schemes have been set up, but campaigners increasingly question whether they work

It’s impossible to get away from palm oil. Over the last few days you have eaten it, rubbed it into your skin, put it in your car or fed it to your pets. It is found in a staggering array of household products, including processed food, cosmetics, soap and shampoos, and it’s a key ingredient in lubricants, paints, pesticides and biofuels. Yet palm oil is also responsible for some of the most destructive deforestation of current times, and its production is contributing to climate change. 

Demand for palm oil has doubled in the last decade, and is predicted to double again by 2020, driven by consumer demand for the foodstuffs, cosmetics and fuels derived from the versatile lipid. But to supply this demand, huge areas of rainforest in Malaysia and Indonesia are being cleared to make way for palm oil plantations, at a rate of over two million hectares a year, according to Friends of the Earth. These rainforests are the last remaining habitat of endangered animals such as the Sumatran tiger, rhinocerous and orang-utan. What's more, much of this rainforest is located on peat land – a natural carbon sink that contains huge reserves of greenhouse gases. Palm oil growers, by razing the forest canopy and draining the peat soil, inadvertently release this stored carbon into the atmosphere. Greenpeace has warned that the destruction of Indonesian peatlands in Riau province alone could release 14.6 gigatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere - equivalent to one year’s total global emissions. Demand for palm oil is only accelerating this process, and it shows no sign of stopping.

Much of this demand comes from biofuel producers, who champion palm oil as a source of cheap, renewable energy, and a potential replacement for fossil fuels. But according to Kenneth Richter at Friends of the Earth, this doesn’t take into account the GHG emissions from deforestation. ‘All the latest research suggests that overall, biofuels made from palm oil don’t actually reduce emissions compared to fossil fuels.’ Worse still, a recently leaked EU impact assessment found that when emissions from deforestation are accounted for, biodiesel produced from palm oil actually emits more carbon than crude oil.

In recent years, the industry has started trying to clean up its act and reduce deforestation. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was founded in 2004, with the goal of encouraging environmentally conscious production by certifying green plantations as sustainable. ‘Last year, seven per cent of the total global production was certified as sustainable,’ certification expert Bob Norman points out. ‘I think that’s a pretty good starting point. There may be a question over pace, but there isn’t a magic tap that can be switched on for instant sustainable palm oil.’

Retailers and supermarkets too are starting to wake up to the dangers of palm oil, as WWF campaigner and RSPO representative Adam Harrison explains. ‘In the UK, almost all the major retailers have committed to using 100 per cent sustainable palm oil for their own brands by 2015.’ The WWF publishes a sustainability scorecard, where manufacturers and retailers of palm oil based products are rated on their commitment to using CSPO. Many of the large supermarket chains scored top marks in the 2011 report. But work remains to be done. ‘Supermarkets aren’t dealing with the third party brands that they sell,’ Harrison continues. ‘Companies like Northern Foods, which are huge suppliers of processed and branded food for Asda, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury's and Tesco, have performed surprisingly poorly - they just haven’t put the legwork in.’

Some, such as Greenpeace’s Ian Duff, remain sceptical of the RSPO’s certification scheme. ‘There’s no such thing as sustainable palm oil,’ says Duff. ‘The standards under which the RSPO has achieved sustainability are flawed – they’re not strong enough, and they’re not being policed enough. Even if we make all palm oil sustainably produced, that won’t stop the destruction of rainforest in places like Malaysia and Indonesia.’ Kenneth Richter concurs. ‘The RSPO doesn’t take into account carbon emissions at source, which is a huge problem,’ he says. ‘In addition, there are a lot of loopholes, so companies like Sime Darby are members [of RSPO] but there is a lot of evidence that they’ve continued to illegally deforest for plantations.’ Bob Norman is more optimistic. ‘Yes, the bar can always be raised. But out of all the standards out there, it’s a very strong standard. You have to start somewhere.’ Harrison points out that the RSPO’s standards are being continually toughened up. ‘Carbon emissions are on the table for inclusion this year. It’s going to be a fight to get them in, but I think we have a good opportunity to win.’

So what can UK consumers do? ‘It is difficult,’ Harrison admits. Part of the problem is that palm oil is often listed as vegetable oil on product labels, making it hard to spot palm oil products on your shopping list. ‘There is a sustainability trademark, which is now used by a growing number of companies, so hopefully it will get easier,’ Harrison adds. ‘For now, ask your favourite brands and supermarkets what they are doing, and when they will be committed to CSPO.’ Avoiding companies that score poorly on the WWF scorecard will also help. Budget supermarkets Aldi and Lidl both scored zero, while other low scorers include Ferrero (makers of Ferrero Rocher chocolate), Nutella, Continental Bakeries, Goodfellas’ Pizza, and, surprisingly, Ecover. Cosmetics that contain palm oil include the Herbal Essences, Neutrogena, Clinique and Lancôme brands.

Kenneth Richter, meanwhile, advocates a political approach. ‘This year the UK government has to decide whether they will increase the target for biofuel usage, and there are a number of palm oil-fired power stations being planned for the UK. So we think the best thing people can do is to write to their MP.’ Palm oil remains a complicated issue, and shows no signs of going away. But Harrison remains convinced that consumer pressure can make a difference. ‘Companies need to get the message much harder than they have done. The commitment just isn’t really there at the moment, which is very, very worrying.’


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