Making a statement about palm oil has become something of a business necessity. If major brands are not buying certificates to offset their use, they’re announcing plans to buy certified sustainable palm oil. Others are ordering supplies from sustainable plantations in countries that are not large-scale producers of palm oil.
That’s because the palm oil industry in Malaysian and Indonesia is accused of destroying precious rain forest and the homes of endangered orang-utans, and of emitting high levels of greenhouse gases. That’s why major businesses are responding to consumer demand from consumers that they stop supporting such practices.
It’s a laudable stance and it makes a cute Tweet. But if anyone tries to tell you stopping, reducing or cleaning up Europe’s supply of palm oil will solve the problem, they are misleading you. The issues in Malaysia and Indonesia will still continue.
Firstly, neither of those countries can afford to lose palm oil as an industry – more than a million people in Malaysia and Indonesia depend on palm oil for an income. And about 40 to 45% of plantations in those countries are smallholdings, not large corporations whose oil is shipped abroad.
The second point is that if Europe stops buying palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia, that shortfall will go unnoticed among the huge amount consumed by India, China and other major markets.
Thirdly, switching away from palm produced in Malaysia and Indonesia will remove producers’ incentive to work sustainably. Why invest in certification, audits and changes in production methods if the market is not interested in paying for it?
Fourthly, it’s not palm oil that’s the problem. It’s the production methods that need to be tackled. Palm oil has become popular because it’s the fastest-growing and highest-yielding oil crop on the planet, needing ten times less land than any other. In a world where rapid population growth demands a food supply, swapping palm oil for one that needs more land to grow would bring even greater problems, on a bigger scale.
Basically, it’s not all about you. The palm oil problem is not about image, headlines or neat posts on Twitter. It doesn’t mean giving up chocolate that contains palm oil in order to rescue the orang-utan. It means dealing with the issues that exist now and will go on existing unless we all play a part in making all palm oil production sustainable and responsible.
You won’t help the rain forests with a boycott – you’ll just wash your hands of the problem.