Palm oil has been used for centuries as cooking oil and it has integrated itself seamlessly into our lives. Common products like soap, detergent as well as processed food like chocolate and cereal include palm oil. In fact about 50% of the products we use contain palm oil [Source: Rainforest Action Network]. It’s low price and high saturation point make it attractive to food processing companies as well as oil companies. This increased demand for palm oil is leading to increased deforestation in already threatened areas like Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia.
It is only recently that people have begun to purchase palm oil for home use, but we have been using it in our homes for decades without realizing it. Some of the most recognizable brands like Unilever, Nestle and General Mills contain palm oil in their products, with most of their supply coming from Indonesia’s largest supplier Sinar Mas. Sinar Mas is Indonesia’s largest supplier of palm oil and the second largest in the world [Source: Reuters]. Unfortunately, being the largest producer of palm oil in the world has also brought a lot of negative attention to Sinar Mas and to these American companies. According to a March 2010 Greenpeace report, Sinar Mas currently controls 406,000 hectares of palm oil plantation land and claim to have 1.3 million in their land bank. These land banks are located within forested areas, and Greenpeace has alleged that Sinar Mas is conducting illegal forest and peatland clearing [Source: The Guardian]. These actions have encroached upon forestlife, including orangutans as well as 328 other threatened animal species. The clearing of forests and burning of peatland has also made Indonesia the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. According to Greenpeace, the degradation and burning of peatlands in Indonesia are responsible for 4% of global greenhouse emissions, with Indonesia’s forests being cleared at a rate of 2% per year. By 2030, palm oil production could double, though with the increased demand for biofuels, this number could be significantly higher. The European Commission recently increased the amount of palm oil used in cars and power stations under the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), intended to reduce greenhouse gases. The RED states that the UK and EU must source 10% of petroleum and diesel in road transport from renewable sources by 2020 [Source: EUR-Lex]. While the document protects wildlife wildlife areas that could grow these plants by banning member states from sourcing fuel from greenhouse gas-sequestering grasslands, wetlands and forests. However, the protection does not apply to habitats changed before January 2008, meaning the vast majority of palm oil plantations that replaced forestlands in the past 15 years. Without sustainable practices, it would take between 75 and 93 years for the benefits of switching to biofuels to outweigh the detrimental effects of converting rainforest to plantations [Source: Independent].
Fortunately, many corporations and countries are taking steps to offer sustainable palm oil. After the Greenpeace report, Unilever promptly cancelled its deal with a Sinar Mas subsidiary PT SMART and stated that the company would only use sustainable palm oil in their products by 2015. Nestle has also followed in Unilever’s footsteps and cancelled their deal with Sinar Mas, though they still receive palm oil from Cargill, an American supplier of Sinar Mas palm oil [Source: The Guardian]. In order to create a more sustainable palm oil business, stakeholders from seven sectors of the palm oil industry united to create the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The organization strives to implement and develop global standards for sustainable palm oil. Companies like Nestle, Unilever and Kraft have joined RSPO and the organization has successfully pressured palm oil producers outside of Malaysia and Indonesia to stop developing peatlands as plantations [Source: Mongabay]. Brazil has not only agreed to the terms of the RSPO, they have also created a plan called the Program for Sustainable Production of Palm Oil (PSPP). The PSPP will provide $60 million for development of oil palm in abandoned and degraded agricultural areas, including long deforested sugar cane plantations. The program will strictly prohibit expansion into native forests and use satellites to ensure expansion does not cause deforestation [Source: Mongabay].
Palm oil has been a rainforest’s greatest enemy next to lumber companies, but there is hope for sustainable palm oil. The creation of the RSPO as well as Brazil’s new plan for sustainable oil are all steps in the right direction. The only problem is to find a way to stop the damage in Indonesia and Malaysia.