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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