We’re rethinking palm oil… should you?

We’re rethinking palm oil… should you?

It’s bad, right?
You may have been there before: seduced by the irresistible packaging of a new brand of biscuit, already mentally dunking it in a hot cuppa, but just before you drop it into your shopping basket you scan the ingredients. Sustainable palm oil. With a heavy sigh you return the biscuits to the shelf. You know you shouldn’t buy palm oil, ‘sustainable’ or otherwise.

Because palm oil is bad, right? Bad for trees and wildlife. Bad for indigenous populations and plantation workers. Bad for you and me. But are we being told the whole story, or is it time to tell a new story about the product we all love to hate?

What is it?
Palm oil—extracted from the fruit of the African Oil Palm, now grown the world over—is notoriously the most ubiquitous vegetable fat in manufacturing. Globally, we use over 60 million tonnes per year in everything from make-up to pies, and our hunger for it continues to grow.

When you look at the properties of palm oil, it’s no wonder that it’s an ingredient in half of all packaged products. It’s high yielding, incredibly versatile, increases a product’s shelf life and is virtually undetectable by taste or odour.

The risks
But we also know that unsustainable palm oil production has been responsible for widespread environmental damage: deforestation, loss of habitat and biodiversity, and air quality degradation through slash and burn activity. What’s more, the social impacts of irresponsible production are significant. Documented human rights abuses, cases of child labour, indigenous displacement and land grabs have all played their part in blackening the name of the industry.

The logical response from campaign groups and consumers has been a straight boycott, but now Supporting Sustainable Palm Oil—a Bristol-based partnership between Bristol Zoological Society and We The Curiousis calling for us all to think twice about this knee-jerk reaction.

What’s wrong with a boycott?
Supporting Sustainable Palm Oil highlights that boycotting the product altogether could lead to much greater environmental and human impact. Palm oil is far and away the most efficient vegetable fat in terms of land use: it uses just 6.6% of land used for cultivating vegetable fat, yet contributes a staggering 38.7% of the oil we produce. That makes it 4–6 times more oil-productive than any other plant. To drive manufacturers towards an alternative oil would inevitably result in yet more land cleared for cultivation.

A boycott also risks pushing sales of non-sustainable palm oil to other global economies where purchasers may not be so rigorous in vetting production for human rights abuses and unfair trading practices. Significant progress has been made in improving the working conditions, pay and rights of palm oil workers, but these changes are largely driven by the demand of Western economies.

What’s the alternative?
If we acknowledge that manufactured food is here to stay, then—according to Supporting Sustainable Palm Oil advocates—the best things we can do is to vote with our wallets, showing manufacturers that we demand sustainable ingredients. For Palm Oil, the zoo-led alliance cites RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil: rspo.org/) certification as the benchmark.

Their standards divide palm oil production into four categories. The highest-grade palm oil—Identity Preserved—can be traced back to the plantation, whereas the lowest grade—Book and Claim—guarantees nothing more than the manufacturer has paid an off-set fee to sustainable production.

Experts acknowledge that even Identity Preserved has a long way to go, particularly in terms of environmental safeguarding. There are strong indications that more rigorous environmental standards—currently part of an optional scheme known as RSPO Next—will be incorporated into standards imminently. But in the meantime, only increased demand for certification from consumers, retailers, manufacturers and policy makers alike can drive improvement; in 2017, only 50% of oil produced under RSPO standards was purchased as certified, meaning that producers are losing out for their good practice.

The elephant in the room
Our power to choose is being compromised. Retailers and manufacturers, shamed by campaigns that target the whole palm oil industry and fail to make the distinction between sustainable and unsustainable production, are hesitant to highlight their use of sustainable oil. Though vegetable oils must be identified by type in food products (though not in non-food products), even retailers whose own brands use only RSPO Identity Preserved are choosing not to draw attention to the fact. This means their customers have no way of showing their support through their buying choices. Supporting Sustainable Palm Oil are working to change public opinion, and help lay the ground to bring retailers out of the shadows.

What’s next for us?
As an organic retailer, there’s an added dimension to consider: as yet, it’s not clear where organic certified palm oil—found in several of the products on our shelves—fits into the picture. And so we’re embarking on a journey, with the help of the organic experts and conservationists we’re so lucky to know in Bristol, to find out how we and our customers can make the best choices.

We’re only just setting out and there’s lots to learn, but we invite you to join us on our journey and pop those biscuits (with organic or RSPO-certified palm oil) into your basket after all.