- A worldwide moratorium on palm oil production would likely exacerbate the issues of deforestation and loss of biodiversity, according to a new study from Germany’s University of Goettingen and Indonesia’s Bogor Agricultural University. Researchers also found it would contribute to "large economic losses" in producing countries.
- The study found palm oil-related deforestation rates in Africa and Latin America were much lower than in Indonesia and Malaysia, which export 85% of the internationally traded ingredient. In Nigeria, only 3% of forest loss was connected to palm oil production and in Latin America, 80% of palm oil expansion occurred on abandoned pastures and other land uses rather than forests.
- Additionally, the rates of biodiversity loss were found to be similar to other monoculture plantation crops such as rubber and soybeans.
Palm oil has been embroiled in controversy for a while now, but this new study concludes that eliminating production might unintentionally be even more detrimental to the environment and individual economies.
Although there is little scientific literature that has echoed this finding, the GreenPalm Sustainability effort and Smithsonian Magazine have pointed out that palm oil is capable of outpacing the production of other popular vegetable oils, such as rapeseed, soybean and sunflower. Palm oil yields 3.8 tonnes per hectare, according to 2016 World Wildlife Fund data cited by Bakery and Snacks, which is significantly more than other oils.
To avoid the risk of deforestation altogether, one could look elsewhere for the oil needed in CPG products. Algae produces about 70,000 pounds of oil per acre, for example, compared to palm oil's 4,465 pounds per acre. And startups such as Revive Eco are investigating ways to use upcycled food byproducts like coffee grounds to produce a more sustainable and environmentally friendly substitute for palm oil. Although available, the price point and the production scale of these alternatives are inferior to palm oil.
As the most widely-used vegetable oil on the plant, it is no surprise that palm oil has such a bright spotlight on it. For years, environmentalists have pushed for the reduction of its use along with more sustainable cultivation practices. Governmental entities also have decried the production practices associated with its cultivation. The United Nations says palm oil plantations are a major source of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss in Southeast Asia.
In recent years, growing pressure has prompted companies to try to change how they use and source the commodity. Nestlé first pledged in 2010 to source all of its palm oil by 2013 from places that were never natural forests. But by 2017, the company had still not met this goal. Nestlé has committed to shifting all of its global products to that status by 2020 and plans to use a satellite monitoring service to limit deforestation in its palm oil supply chain.
Although some efforts have been stalled, other companies are further ahead. Mondelez announced it met its benchmark of using palm oil that was 100% certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in 2013. Danone also pledged to source 100% sustainable palm oil by 2015, a goal it has reached, according to the WWF. More recently, Mondelez's Enjoy Life Foods became the first food company to be Certified Palm Oil Free by the International Palm Oil Free Certification Accreditation Program.
As the latest research points out, palm oil offers big advantages for food manufacturers. Not only is it cheaper than other oils, it also has a long shelf life and processing benefits such as stability at high temperatures and solidity at room temperature. If produced in a sustainable fashion, the yields that come from palm oil could actually work to the industry’s favor in making a case to allow production to continue. Accomplishing that, however, will take some large-scale coordination between governments, farmers and manufacturers.
The majority of land that is cultivated for palm oil is owned by smallholder farmers who have benefited greatly from the boom in palm oil production. The global area used for palm oil production increased from fewer than 5 million hectares (12 million acres) in 1980 to more than 20 million hectares (50 million acres) in 2018, according to the new study. This expansion in production has led directly to an increase in rural incomes and a reduction in farmer poverty, especially in Southeast Asia. It has also led to illegal deforestation to set up these profitable farms.
Perhaps by investing in these farmers and educating them on methods to maximize production, there could be a better solution. In addition to continuing to have a source of sustainable palm oil, companies also could benefit from the supply chain transparency that would result from these investments in responsible sourcing when communicating with consumers.