Articles posted on social media routinely direct us to boycott palm oil because its production displaces indigenous communities, kills wildlife, and destroys rainforests, which contributes to climate change. In fact, the cultivation of palm fruit trees is so destructive to the environment and to animals that, to many, palm oil, which is derived from a fruit, is no longer regarded as vegan.
Palm oil plantation on newly cleared rainforest
Some products contain palm oil that is labeled “sustainable,” but what does that mean? In an effort to determine whether or not we should be consuming “sustainable” palm oil, TheirTurn spoke to several rainforest and wildlife NGOs; companies that use sustainable palm; and a leader in the production of de-forestation-free palm.
Orangutans, who are displaced, orphaned, kidnapped and killed, have become a symbol of the destructive effects palm oil (photo: Biosprit-subventionen)
What is sustainable palm oil?
In the U.S., palm oil is found in 50% of packaged consumer goods sold in grocery stores. It is widely used because it minimizes separation and is free of trans-fats. NGOs estimate that 18% of palm currently sold comes from sustainable sources.
At the moment, only one organization, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), has a global certification program, but the criteria are so weak and enforcement so lax that “sustainable” no longer has meaning.
According to a spokesperson at the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), “‘sustainable’ is just a claim; it’s not credible.” For instance, the RSPO will certify palm grown on certain deforested lands. That’s not good enough, according to the RAN, which opposes the clearing of any forest worth conserving. RAN says that the newly-created Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) is working to strengthen the RSPO criteria and to pressure the biggest manufacturers to adopt a stronger set of requirements from its growers. The process, however, is slow going.
The Roundtable Sustainable Palm Oil certification criteria are weak and often unenforced
Should we boycott palm oil?
Palm oil is here to stay for the indefinite future. The vast majority is consumed in countries in Asia and the Middle East where rainforest conservation is a low priority and consumer demand for sustainable products is negligible. If the American, European and Australian NGOs fighting to save the rainforests call for a boycott, then the companies that use palm will have no incentive to purchase it from sustainable sources. After all, why would companies spend more money on sustainable palm if the people who care about sustainability aren’t buying it? That is why many NGOs argue that demanding and buying responsible palm oil will, over time, protect the remaining forests more than boycotting it will.
The Rainforest Action Network targets the top 20 companies that use unsustainable, or “conflict,” palm oil.
Following are factors to consider when deciding whether or not to buy packaged foods with palm oil at this point in time
- If “sustainable” is not printed on the label, then you have to assume the palm fruit trees were grown on cleared rainforest.
- If “sustainable” is printed on the label, then the palm oil may or may not have been grown on cleared rainforest.
- Tracing palm oil to the actual land on which it was grown is challenging at the moment. As a result, most consumer products companies don’t know the exact source of their palm oil and should therefore not be making sustainability claims.
- In the U.S., any company can print “sustainable” on its label because the government does not have a regulatory agency to monitor that claim.
Palm oil is extracted from palm fruit that grows on trees in the tropics
Can we eat Earth Balance and Justin’s?
TheirTurn contacted the makers of Earth Balance and Justin’s because they make products with palm oil that are popular with vegans. Both companies buy RSPO-certified palm and appear genuinely eager to ensure that it’s deforestation-free, but, short of hiring investigators to follow their palm vendors, they simply cannot guarantee it at the moment.
However, according to the the Rainforest Action Network, Boulder Brands, the maker of Earth Balance, has “made the strongest palm oil commitment” of any U.S. company, demanding that its suppliers move in the direction of providing the company with palm produced in accordance with the POIG’s strict requirements. Now, Earth Balance needs to work with its supplier to implement this higher standard on the ground in Indonesia and Latin America.
Are plant-based foods vegan if they contain palm oil?
What is Palm Oil?
Palm oil is extracted from the fruit of palm trees that can only be grown in the tropics (show map), the heavily-forested areas near the equator that are often described as “the lungs of the earth.”
Palm fruit trees can be grown in the tropics, 10 degrees on either side of the equator. About 90% is currently grown in Indonesia (far right)
Once planted, palm fruit trees bear fruit after four years. After 20 years, the trees are chopped down and replanted because plantation workers can no longer reach the fruit bundles. After four cycles, the yield is reduced. Does that mean that palm growers will move their plantations to new land that is covered in forest? It’s too soon to say.
When plantation workers can no longer reach palm fruit bundles, the trees are cut down, and new trees are planted.
If every company that uses palm oil decided to purchase it from responsible sources, would there be enough non-forested land to supply the global demand?
According to the Orangutan Land Trust, an advocacy group that works to preserve orangutan habitat, the island of Borneo alone has 35 million acres of unforested land that is suitable for oil palm cultivation, and that far exceeds projected growth for the next few decades: “It is a complete fallacy that new oil-palm plantations need to come at the expense of forests.”