Figures released by the WWF suggest that global demand for vegetable oils is expected to rise by around 54 per cent by 2020 as the global population continues to grow and becomes more affluent. But in order to meet this growing demand, huge swathes of tropical rainforest in Indonesia and Malaysia, which often include carbon peat swamps, are being cleared for rapeseed (canola), palm oil and soybean plantations. ‘Palm oil is nine times more productive than soy, so nine times less land is needed to produce a tonne of oil,’ explains WWF campaigner and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) representative Adam Harrison.
As a commodity palm oil is extremely versatile but has come under fire from green groups in recent years. Found in a everything from shampoo to soaps, palm is also used as a cooking oil and can be made into a biofuel. Currently, we consume around 50 million tonnes a year, although this is expected to double by 2050, according to WWF figures. As a result of increased consumption, wildlife such as the pygmy elephant and the Sumatra tiger - both directly affected by habitat loss - are pushed further into decline. But, as Harrison says, palm isn’t the only oil at fault: other types of vegetable oil also have an environmental impact.
‘WWF is focusing on soy, which impacts on the Cerrado or South American savannah through clearance to farm it and palm oil,’ explains Harrison. ‘Oil seed rape will have impacts where it grows.’ So can ditching palm or soy for something else really help protect the planet? ‘The bottom line is that global demand is increasing and so global supply is increasing,’ says Harrison. ‘If the industry can sever the link between palm oil and deforestation then it could be a very sustainable vegetable oil.’ But palm oil plantations also come with a major carbon footprint. ‘When the RSPO was first set up, Friends of the Earth was cautiously optimistic about it,’ says Friends of the Earth’s Kenneth Richter. ‘However, since then it has become apparent that the RSPO has failed in reining in the expansion of palm oil.’
According to EU data leaked earlier this year to EurActiv, rapeseed oil, palm oil and soy oil are the three biofuels that produce more greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels once emissions from indirect land use change are taken into account. Sunflower, wheat, maize, sugar cane and sugar beet also made the list of natural baddies. ‘The use of vegetable oil in biofuels is the fastest growing new demand for vegetable oils,’ explains Richter. ‘Therefore, it is partly responsible for the expansion of crops like soy and palm oil into the forests of SE Asia and South America.’
Even though rapeseed oil has become increasingly popular, particularly within the food market, it wasn’t always suitable for eating. In its pure form rapeseed oil is considered mildly toxic to humans when consumed in high quantities due to its high levels of erucic acid. But, a shift to canola oil, also known as rapeseed 00, in the seventies produced an edible oil for human consumption. However, Richter says that when everything is taken into account, palm oil is more damaging than rapeseed. ‘In general if you just compare palm oil with rapeseed oil, palm oil is more directly impacting on the rainforest in Indonesia and Malaysia. Any increase in demand is directly leading to the expansion of palm oil and plantation and, therefore, deforestation.’
Harrison disagrees and believes that palm oil is good and that if the impacts have been addressed then it is possible to produce any commodity sustainably. ‘Palm oil is a very good candidate since current average yields are well below the industry best, and plenty of suitable land is available,’ he says. That means land that does not have any community use, he qualifies, has low wildlife values and has little carbon stored. ‘Palm oil could easily double production without any more forest loss if the industry and governments wanted it to.’
So, can you really tuck into vegetable (soy and palm) or rapeseed oil with a clear conscience? Harrison says it’s down to individual choice. ‘At the end of the day the consumer should choose the oil that has the most credible proof of sustainability’ But Richter adds, that regardless of the oil in question there will be an increase in CO2 emissions. ‘Research has shown that the current rush to biofuel will lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, rather than a reduction. There is little difference between biodiesel from rapeseed and palm oil.’
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