The future of palm oil

To boycott or not to boycott? That is the question.

Boycotting palm oil would only be the way forward if there was a viable, more sustainable alternative which at present there isn’t.

Palm oil is the fat of the red fruit of palm trees. From shampoo to chocolate, from laundry detergent to pizza, from biofuel to lipstick, palm oil is used in more of the products we consume on a daily basis than you’d ever expect. 

As well as being hugely versatile, giving food its thick texture, shampoo its foaming power and raising the melting point of ice cream, it is also long lasting and odourless. No wonder it’s the first choice for so many manufacturers. 

palm fruit
Photo by Nanang Sujana/CIFOR

The boom - where did it begin?

Before palm oil came into play, trans fats were used in many food applications. Trans fats come from modifying vegetable oils, giving them a very useful texture. 

Trans fats first came into play at the turn of the 20th century but gained wider use during World War II at the height of rationing. However, studies soon found increasing links between trans fats and heart disease, with one study concluding that women who ate high amounts of trans fats in their diet were 60 to 80 percent more likely to suffer from heart attacks. 

This was the turning point - trans fats out, palm oil in. 

By the early 2000s, the boom was in full swing, and thousands of square miles of lowland forests and peatlands were planted with oil palms. We now produce globally close to 72 million tons a year, 85 Percent of which comes from Malaysia and Indonesia alone, compared to less than 1.5 million tons 60 years ago.

Today, three billion people in 150 countries use products containing palm oil, with China and India being the biggest importers, driving colossal global demand. National economies run on the stuff because it is so productive. A hectare of oil palm plantation can produce  four to six times more oil than any other vegetable oil. 

Environmental impact

The monumentally high demand for palm has resulted in unsustainable production. We’ve all seen the devastating impacts unregulated deforestation is having on both wildlife and communities, as it's so often in the media and in Attenborough's latest documentaries.

What we are currently left with are islands of jungle that look intact but are largely empty of animal life. 

palm oil deforestation
Photo by Nanang Sujana/CIFOR

A total of 80 percent of Orangutan habitat as disappeared in the last 20 years. There are also now only 400 Sumatran tigers left in the world. Elephant-human conflict in some areas such as Sabah, Malaysia, is rife.

Human rights violations are all too common in the palm oil sector, from appropriating local communities' land to unfair working conditions.

The challenge for consumers like me and you, is that over the last couple of decades, we know less and less what goes into our food and where it comes from.

Since 2014, European Union law has compelled companies to label palm oil. However, palm oil is also buried in a huge number of ingredients we have no idea about. These include:

  • Stearate
  • Palmate
  • Elaeis guineensis
  • Etyl palmitate
  • Glyceryl
  • Hydrogenated palm glycerides
  • Octyl palmitate

All of the above come from palm oil, and manufacturers can be sneaky in how they list ingredients. 

Boycott?

To boycott or not to boycott palm oil has been a widely debated topic in the media for a long time. There are reports stating ‘palm oil is destroying the planet’, ‘save the orangutans - boycott palm oil’, ‘shop sustainably, don’t buy palm oil containing products’.

Yes, palm oil is harming our planet, and rapidly - but boycotting palm oil would only be the way forward if there was a viable, more sustainable alternative. Both WWF and Greenpeace think boycotting wouldn’t be productive.

Removing palm oil from most products will lead manufacturers into using another vegetable oil or animal fat which in itself leads to further land clearance to meet demand. Palm oil is insanely productive, so replacing it with another vegetable oil could take up to nine times more land. 

Take Selfridges for example. In 2019, they made all products in their own range palm oil free. They were applauded in the media. I researched the alternatives they were using and it turns out their replacement is soybean and rapeseed oils. These are less productive and will sadly therefore still be contributing to land degradation. 

The palm oil boom has also helped bring economic benefits to poorer communities around the world including jobs, paved roads, better schools, satellite television.

palm plantation worker
Photo by Nafise Motlaq / World Bank

The key challenge now is not that palm oil plantations exist, it’s how we produce palm oil sustainably and cap growth. One thing you certainly don’t want to do is rip up already existing plantations as once a plantation matures, it starts to lock carbon back up again rather than releasing it through slash and burn.  

Does sustainable palm oil exist?

In short, yes - but it doesn’t come without its own challenges. 

The main governance system through which sustainable production of palm oil can be assessed is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). 

Sustainable palm oil is produced in a way which minimises environmental impact, safeguards biodiversity and benefits people. RSPO standards include: not clearing primary forest; not clearing areas high in carbon; not growing crops on peatlands and protecting areas that are rich in biodiversity and/or of cultural significance.

smallholder training
Smallholder training on Best Management Practices for palm oil cultivation which will increase yield whilst reducing the need to convert forest. Photo by Proforestphotos/Flickr

Today the RSPO certifies roughly one-fifth of the global supply, and over 75 percent of total UK palm oil imports are sustainable. In fact, Chester is the world’s first city to sell purely sustainable palm oil.

Many consumer goods manufacturers that rely on palm oil have pledged to switch their supply chains exclusively to certified palm oil over the next few years. That’s a big step forward, but it’s not enough.

Challenges with sustainable palm oil 

There has been some criticism of RSPO over the years. Some argue that the supply of sustainable palm oil is currently outstripping demand, meaning land is being used unnecessarily. There is also concern around the lack of enforcement from RSPO for those certified palm oil companies breaking the standards in place. 

What’s also still lacking is government intervention in producing countries. If the government isn’t on board, doesn’t have the capacity or doesn’t know what it’s doing, certified palm oil will not be on their agenda.

India and China are the biggest importers of palm oil in the world, taking in almost 40 percent of the world’s global demand. Demand for sustainable certification in these countries is low, however, as their priority is cheap food and economic growth.

What are the alternatives? 

The unique fatty acid profile and low price of palm oil makes it challenging to replace. Substituting it with other vegetable oils such as sunflower or rapeseed, or exotic oils such as coconut, is not economically or environmentally viable given the lower productivity and modification of physical properties needed to match that of palm oil. 

This leaves one remaining option: the substitution of palm oil with single cell oils such as yeast.

With their flexible lipid profile, availability and their ability to grow on a wide variety of substrates such as food waste and agricultural residue, single cell oils like yeast offer the most promising technical solution as a direct alternative. 

Using waste removes the need for agricultural land to cultivate material, and thus helps to reduce any impact from food crop displacement.

Another selling point is that the type of yeast being researched at present, M. pulcherrima, can be found pretty much anywhere, including on a huge variety of tree leaves, fruits and flowers. Initial efforts have turned up strains in Vietnam, South Africa, Italy, and France.

Chris Chuck, Professor of Bioprocess Engineering and the University of Bath, has been at the forefront of this research.

He and his team admit that the road is a long one from lab tests to industrial production and questions are still unanswered such as what the most sustainable and financially viable culture to produce the yeast on is, how to protect the yeast against bugs and other so-called inhibitors, and how to maintain high saturate levels.

Cost is also a challenge. Palm is the lowest-cost terrestrial oil, and hence any industrial biotechnological process aiming to compete with palm faces the barrier of price. At present, it’s likely that single cell oils will be two to five times more expensive than palm. 

So, what does the future hold? 

Before single cell oils like yeast can replace palm oil, questions need answering, and the cost of production needs to come down. It could be 3-5 years or even a decade until it takes off.

However, the environmental benefits of cultivating yeast oil on waste residue, and the vastly reduced impact on existing natural resources and localized production, could create a clear path for single cell oils like yeast to become a viable replacement in the future. 

In the short to medium term however, ensuring sustainability in the palm oil sector is the only realistic approach to reducing environmental impact. This can be achieved through engagement with stakeholder groups, and national and international communities. 

We must also find effective monitoring strategies (for example, remote sensing) to ensure a halt to deforestation, and improve enforcement regulations with respect to deforestation, cultivation on high-carbon peatland, and worker exploitation. 

Better waste management is also needed, particularly of empty fruit branches and polluting wastewater from the mills (POME). Palm oil producer Neste estimates that 70 percent of palm oil mills in Indonesia and Malaysia do not have any methane reduction measures in place. Composting and methane recovery could be the way forward. 

Finally, and most importantly, we have to increase market demand for sustainable palm oil, particularly in India and China. This should be done through incentive. For example, reduced transaction costs of switching to sustainable products. 

To adopt more sustainable practices, there must be economic and regulatory drivers.

This Author

Sophie Johnson is a Zoology graduate and passionate conservation blogger from the UK.

References

  1. BBC Inside Science (2019) . What's the problem with palm oil and should we be supporting sustainably grown oil? https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000bp49 
  2. BBC Radio 4 (2019). Should I boycott palm oil, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0002lhw 
  3. The Guardian (2019). How the world got hooked on palm oil, https://www.theguardian.com/news/audio/2019/mar/08/how-the-world-got-hooked-on-palm-oil-podcast 
  4. Parsons, S., Raikova, S., & Chuck, C. J. (2020). The viability and desirability of replacing palm oil. Nature Sustainability, 1-7.
  5. Chuck, C. (2016). Developing an alternative to palm oil from waste resources, using yeast, https://www.bath.ac.uk/projects/developing-an-alternative-to-palm-oil-from-waste-resources-using-yeast/

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