Why It’s Important to Support Sustainable Palm Oil

60 million tonnes of palm oil are produced globally every year – an oil that is on the ingredient lists of 50% of supermarket items. The versatility and monetary value of palm oil have resulted in unsustainable production methods, predominantly slash and burn techniques, which are destroying vast areas of forest and ecosystems. Between 1973 and 2015, over 57% of deforestation in Malaysia and Borneo was a direct result of this (Gaveau et al, 2016). Sustainable palm oil production is now widely debated, with the number of publications related to the topic rising from 11 in 2004 to 713 by 2013 (Hansen et al, 2015). Controversial and sometimes misunderstood issues concerning this crop are damaging its image as an environmentally friendly oil (Tan et al, 2009), which could result in detrimental environmental and social challenges.

The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO, founded in 2004) is a group of key members in the industry, with the primary focus of making all palm oil production sustainable. 12 million tonnes (19%) of the global supply of palm oil is now certified as sustainable by the RSPO. Among the requirements to be certified are a commitment to transparent supply chains, fair working conditions, and protecting areas rich in biodiversity and endangered species. Compared with other similar initiatives, the RSPO has been successful in influencing policy. Both the Forest Stewardship Council and the Roundtable on Responsible Soy have been beset with problems that they have struggled to overcome, such as not being able to get enough participation from producers (Nikoloyuk et al 2010).

One of the most effective ways to protect wildlife is to ban slashing and burning (Hauser & Norgrove, 2013). An estimated 100,000 Bornean orangutans were killed between 1999 and 2015 due to removed habitat, with another 45,000 predicted to disappear over the next 35 years (Voigt et al, 2018). In a study carried out by Tvardikova (2010) on birds in Papua New Guinea, it was found that species diversity is considerably different between primary and regenerating secondary forest, with a decline of 20% in secondary forest and 31 of the bird species studied found only in primary forest. Adopting a no-burn approach means chopping down oil palm trees at the end of their life and allowing the material to rot and return to the land naturally (Chan et al, 2003). Malaysia has successfully implemented this, demonstrating that awareness of the importance of the environment does not necessarily come at the expense of economic performance (Murphy, 2007). Although this method avoids the burning of trees, it introduces other problems in the form of pests and diseases that can thrive in the debris (Murphy, 2007), so this isn’t necessarily practical long-term.

Since the 1970s, advances in the industry have raised yields and reduced required input, meaning less land area is required for production than for other food crops (Basiron, 2007). Palm oil naturally lends itself to sustainable production due to its output-to-input ratio of 9:1 (soybean and rapeseed are just 3:1) and its carbon dioxide absorption that is ten times more efficient than that of soybean (Basiron, 2007).

Organisations like WWF work with smallholders so that they remain informed on how to retain their RSPO certification, resulting in a reduction in the use of chemicals and an increase in the protection of ecosystems. The average yield for the crop in Malaysia and Indonesia is 3-3.5 tonnes per hectare, but this can be more than doubled by adopting RSPO’s principles (Nikoloyuk et al, 2010). Since the widespread development of the crop, people’s quality of life has improved; farmers are able to produce higher yields with their existing plantations, so there is no need for them to expand their land. Producers in Malaysia benefit from annual overseas earnings of about 8 billion dollars (Basiron, 2007). Malaysia’s FELDA oil palm scheme has substantially alleviated poverty in rural areas and is a leading example for other developing countries to follow (Timms, 2007). Those once in poverty now have enough money to feed their families and send their children to school; almost half (45%) of palm oil in Indonesia is produced by smallholders who rely on it to lift them out of poverty.

In terms of individual plantations, barn owls can be used to control pest populations rather than pesticides, leguminous crops are planted to increase soil fertility and minimise soil erosion, and the oil palm’s empty fruit bunches are returned to the land as fertiliser, eradicating the need for inorganic ones. Furthermore, the fibres from the empty bunches are used by paper industries, reducing the overall waste from palm oil mills (Tan et al, 2007).

As the first Southeast Asian producer to be certified, Musim Mas have implemented strategies to improve their production. A key element of their Sustainability Policy, published in 2014, is their traceable supply chain. The world’s largest sustainable producer, Sime Darby, uses the High Carbon Stock Approach (HCSA) which calculates the amount of carbon and biodiversity in a land area to avoid deforestation in places that need protection. They do not utilise land with 35 or more tonnes of carbon per hectare. Their new developments are limited to scrub and grassland which are low carbon areas and have ‘no demonstrable conservation values’. They were a founding member of the RSPO and made their zero-burn pledge 3 decades ago. They, like Musim Mas, value transparency and use their own system, ‘Crosscheck’, to identify problems at their source so that they can be stopped more easily.

Consumer awareness of palm oil is high. In 2018, Iceland ran a nationwide campaign announcing the removal of palm oil from all its own-brand products, and Ostfeld et al (2019) found that 77% of UK customers check for eco-friendly food labels. According to Sime Darby, companies that use sustainable palm oil often don’t make that clear on product labels; palm oil is so controversial, few companies want to draw attention to being linked to it at all. 

Palm oil has the potential to be sustainable if it is produced in the right way, but farmer and consumer education is vital. This commodity only accounts for 6.6% of global land used for producing vegetable oil but contributes 38.7% of all output. If boycotted, smallholders and larger businesses may turn to the production of other vegetable oils, resulting in more deforestation and land clearing. So, it appears that not one solution will work on its own. No-burn policies, increasing public awareness, and organisations like the RSPO are all making a difference, but only an interdisciplinary approach will be successful in stopping wildlife degradation while maintaining social and economic growth.


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  2. BBC (2019) What Is Sustainable Palm Oil? Available from: [Accessed 01 November 2019].
  3. Chan, C.K., Jalani, B.S. and Araffin, D. (2003) Refining Plantation Technologies For Sustainable Production: The Path to Eco-economy. Proceedings of the Pipoc 2003 International Palm Oil Congress [online]. 1, pp. 283-303. [Accessed 06 November 2019].
  4. European Palm Oil Alliance (2019) The Palm Oil Story: Facts and Figures. Available from: [Accessed 06 November 2019].
  5. Gaveau, D.L.A, Sheil, D., Husnayaen, Salim, M.A., Arjasakusuma, S., Ancrenaz, M., Pacheco, P. and Meijaard, E. (2016) Rapid Conversions and Avoided Deforestation: Examining Four Decades of Industrial Plantation Expansion in Borneo. Scientific Reports [online]. 6, p. 1. [Accessed 02 November 2019].
  6. Hansen, S.B., Padfield, R., Syayuti, K., Evers, S., Zakariah, Z. and Mastura, S. (2015) Trends in Global Palm Oil Sustainability Research. Journal of Cleaner Production [online]. 100, p. 140. [Accessed 02 November 2019].
  7. Hauser, S. and Norgrove, L. (2013) Slash-and-burn Agriculture, Effects of. Encyclopaedia of Biodiversity [online]. 6, pp. 560-561. [Accessed 02 November 2019].
  8. Iceland (2019) Iceland & Palm Oil – Haven’t We Done Well? Available from: [Accessed 06 November 2019].
  9. Murphy, D.J. (2007) Future prospects for oil palm in the 21st century: Biological and related challenges. European Journal of Lipid Science and Technology [online]. 109, pp. 296-299. [Accessed 01 November 2019].
  10. Musim Mas (2014) Sustainability Policy 2014. Singapore, Musim Mas.
  11. Nikoloyuk, J., Burns, T.R. and De Man, R. (2010) The Promise and Limitations of Partnered Governance: The Case of Sustainable Palm Oil. Corporate Governance [online]. 10 (1), p. 70-71. [Accessed 01 November 2019].
  12. Ostfeld, R., Howarth, D., Reiner, D. and Krasny, P. (2019) Peeling Back the Label—exploring Sustainable Palm Oil Ecolabelling and Consumption in the United Kingdom. Environmental Research Letters [online]. 14 (1), p. 1. [Accessed 30 October 2019].
  13. Rainforest Rescue (2019) Palm Oil – Deforestation For Everyday Products. Available from: [Accessed 20 October 2019].
  14. RSPO (2018) Impact Report 2018. Kuala Lumpur: RSPO.
  15. Sime Darby (2019) Sustainable Development Goals. Available from: [Accessed 29 October 2019].
  16. Tan, K.T., Lee, K.T., Mohamed, A.R. and Bhatia, S. (2009) Palm Oil: Addressing Issues and Towards Sustainable Development. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews [online]. 13 (2), p. 426. [Accessed 01 November 2019].
  17. Timms, R. (2007) Palm Oil – the Oil For the 21st Century? European Journal of Lipid Science and Technology [online]. 109, p. 287. [Accessed 30 October 2019].
  18. Tvardíková, K. (2010) Bird Abundances in Primary and Secondary Growths in Papua New Guinea: A Preliminary Assessment. Tropical Conservation Science [online]. 3 (3), p. 381. [Accessed 05 November 2019].
  19. Voigt, M., Wich, S., Ancrenaz, M., Wells, J., Wilson, K. and Kuhl, H.S. (2018) Global Demand For Natural Resources Eliminated More Than 100,000 Bornean Orangutans. Current Biology [online]. 28 (5), pp. 761-767. [Accessed 03 November 2019].
  20. WWF (2019) Promoting Certified Sustainable Palm Oil. Available from: [Accessed 31 October 2019].
  21. WWF (2012) Profitability and Sustainability in Palm Oil Production 2012. Gland, WWF.

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  • Reply
    Chris Taylor
    May 13, 2020 at 8:56 am

    Hi Lily, I really enjoyed reading your well researched article. These critical environmental issues, like Palm Oil, have so many inter-dependencies – it’s very difficult to take all the parameters into account.

    I’ll be very interested to see what the 2020 global emissions figures will be, after our lock-down. Is this a unique opportunity for us to hit the rest button? I hope so.


    • Reply
      May 13, 2020 at 10:43 am

      Hi Chris, thank you very much for reading and commenting. Exactly – it is never a black and white issue with a straightforward solution and it’s too easy to make decisions without being fully informed. I’m also very interested to see what impact the current situation has on the planet. Hopefully it’s had a chance to breathe…

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