On 11 April, Indonesia held the first international conference on the country’s sustainable palm oil (ISPO) scheme (1). Indonesia really needs to push for the scheme’s implementation. The EU wants to phase out the use of biofuels based on vegetable oils by 2020 (2). This is because the large majority of palm oil production is highly unsustainable.
An unsustainable industry
Palm oil is attractive because the plant from which it is derived has a very high oil yield (3). Palm oil is ubiquitous. It’s added to many different types of food products and toiletries. If the EU phases out biofuels based on palm oil, it will involve a drastic change. From 2006 to 2012, Europe’s use of palm oil as a biofuel additive increased by 365% (4). Almost half of the palm oil imported into the EU is used as biofuel (5).
Palm oil is found in approximately 40-50% of all household products in developed countries (6). But there is nothing sustainable about this level of consumption.
In order to produce this much palm oil, Indonesian and Malaysian forests have to be wiped away in order to make room for an oil-palm monoculture (which involves growing a single plant species over a large expanse for consecutive years). Between 1990 and 2010, Indonesia – the world’s largest producer of palm oil – has seen a 600% growth in the area covered by palm oil plantations (7). This has been accompanied by the loss of 40% of its lowland rainforests.
The effect of the palm oil industry on the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia is absolutely devastating. In Indonesia, farmers set fires to make land suitable for palm oil production (8). These fires emit more greenhouse gases every day than the entire US.
Consumption of palm oil also results in a huge loss of biodiversity, which tends to be an unavoidable outcome of agribusiness, with its short-sighted expansion of monocultures. Palm oil is one of the leading causes of rainforest destruction worldwide – all for the sake of an additive which is unnecessary at best and harmful at worst. Palm oil is being used by food manufacturers to replace trans fats, in light of the health scares surrounding trans fats; the irony being that palm oil is linked to an increase in ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol (9).
The glorification of profit by large corporations and the separation of consumers from the production process means that our most valuable assets (natural resources) can be sacrificed without any sense of loss or grief.
The rapid or sudden disruption of biodiversity caused by palm oil production has a knock-on effect – including the unintended loss of animal species. There are also human rights violations associated with the palm oil industry, including the displacement of indigenous people through the destruction of their natural habitat, as well as through forced labour, the employment of child labourers, and forcing labourers to work in abusive and dangerous conditions.
The destruction of tropical rainforests threatens the existence of many endangered species, especially large mammals found in Malaysia, Borneo (Indonesia) and Sumatra (Indonesia), including orangutans, tigers, elephants, rhinos, sun bears and tapirs. These species are unable to survive in oil palm plantation areas. Orangutans and elephants eat oil palm seeds and so are considered a pest, and like any pest they are killed.
A common method of deforestation is to set fire to the forest, which is thought to have burnt thousands of orangutans to death, who were too slow to escape the rapidly moving inferno. Around 1,000-5,000 orangutans are killed each year, due to the fact that 90% of their natural habitat has been destroyed. Palm oil plantations, with their open spaces and easy-to-navigate road networks, make them a haven for poachers to kill orangutans for their pelts. They are also captured and then used for entertainment in wildlife tourism parks. While it is difficult to estimate the number of orangutans worldwide, it is estimated that there are around 41,000 Bornean orangutans and 7,500 Sumatran orangutans left. This rapid loss is not due to natural selection or environmental pressures, but human interference.
Image credit: Wikipedia
Only 12% of palm oil plantations in Indonesia are ISPO certified (10). Unless sustainable palm oil becomes the norm, deforestation and the loss of habitat and endangered species will continue unabated.
On 4 April, European Parliament called for a single international sustainable palm oil standard in order to tackle these issues. But Indonesia and Malaysia aren’t happy about the move, since it will hinder palm oil exports to the EU.
The EU will continue to import palm oil for food production, as it recognises that this crop is the main source of income for many small farmers. But at the same time, the EU says that, in order to preserve the rainforests and tackle climate change, imports of biofuels based on palm oil have to be halted. Both Indonesia and Malaysia plan to meet with EU officials next month in order to reverse the decision. Indonesia’s coordinating minister for economic affairs, Darmin Nasution, claims that what the EU is saying about palm oil is “not true”.
However, environmental NGOs believe this decision by the EU is sensible. Indeed, while it cannot be denied that the palm oil industry bolsters the economies of both Malaysia and Indonesia, the depletion of the rainforests and ensuing environmental issues is far more tragic and significant. Both countries will have to encourage sustainable palm oil production if they want to maintain their vital trading relationships.
About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe
Sam is a writer who is especially interested in space exploration, sustainability, animal agriculture, nutrition, wellbeing and smart drugs. He is also currently writing a book about the psychedelic drug DMT.