Three ways to save the rainforest using Palm Oil

Marieke Leegwater

Programme Manager Sustainable Palm Oil Choice/Solidaridad 

I am often asked by colleagues, friends and students whether buying palm oil free products will help save the rainforest. Honestly, the question makes me sad. Not just because I have to tell them ‘no,’ but also because the question is based on a simplified perspective on palm oil production. The caricature they are left with is based on public campaigning that paints palm oil as something fundamentally bad for the rainforest and it does not help them to make properly informed decisions. The truth is that even though a lot of bad practices can be associated with palm oil production, at present much of the world’s palm oil is produced by operators who are leading the way on social and environmental practices, and producing palm oil without deforestation. 

So then, what should I tell the people who ask me for a way to save the rainforests from the effects of badly produced palm oil? Well, there are three things they can do right away:

1. Buy products that contain Sustainable Palm Oil!

First and foremost, if you want a sustainable alternative to palm oil, there is already one available: sustainably-produced palm oil. 

Although there are a lot of people who don’t know this, palm oil can be and is often produced sustainably. In fact, sustainably produced palm oil is not only ‘not bad for the environment,’ it can actually contribute to a healthy ecosystem and even help save the rainforests. Let me explain.

Palm oil, out of all edible oilseed crops, is by far the highest yielding. It yields 6 to 10 times higher than other vegetable oil crops.  It provides 35% of the world’s vegetable oil using only 10% of vegetable oil crop land globally. 

When sustainably produced, palm oil can actively be good for the environment, and the life that inhabits it. For example a team from the HUTAN Orang-utan Research Unit has discovered that orangutans in many areas of the Kinabatangan floodplain in Malaysian Borneo use oil palm plantations to move between forest fragments. They also use these plantations to nest, and even as a source of food. Progressive growers and conservation experts work together to ensure connectivity between fragments and that the animals are not disturbed. See this article to learn more.

Also, for farmers across the world palm is a robust, reliable crop. For farmers living in poverty the production of palm oil can be a great support. Palm oil can be harvested every two weeks, providing a steady income that can be used by farmers to cover all types of essential costs, including school fees and medical expenses. This means that palm oil contributes not just to farmers and their families today, but is also an important part of securing rural communities.  

2. Don’t just switch to ‘palm oil free’ products! 

You may think that finding products with sustainable palm oil is difficult. Maybe you can just buy products without palm oil instead. These are easy to find. They come with a big label proclaiming that they are: Produced without Palm Oil. At first glance this may seem like a great alternative. However there is a crucial flaw in this approach. That flaw is that replacing palm oil does not necessarily mean a or more ethically produced product. 

The thing is, all products have an environmental impact. As consumers we need to start intelligently navigating these issues. By replacing palm oil with alternatives, we are missing the opportunity to take responsibility for bad palm oil practices, helping to address them and ensure a more sustainable supply. Instead, by buying a ‘palm oil replacement’ we could end up contributing to other negative environmental impacts. This is because all agricultural production has an impact on the environment, something as true for palm oil and most other crops. So rather than replacing palm oil, we should be looking at how we can separate the wheat from the chaff in the products we already use. To prevent illegal logging we don’t stop using wood in favour of plastic. Instead we make sure the wood is certified, and comes from a plantation. With palm oil it’s no different. There is a world of difference between unsustainable and sustainable palm oil.  

Right now 86 % of palm oil used in Europe for consumer products is RSPO certified, meaning that the vast majority of palm oil products produced and sold in European supermarkets are already geared towards sustainability. Let’s help these companies in their effort to do better! By buying products with sustainable palm oil we can further support companies to invest in, buy and use sustainable palm oil. However, if tomorrow the demand for sustainable products would fall, so too would the impetus for continuing this important trend, as would the desire to see further transformation of the sector. 

So , don’t buy alternatives, instead buy responsibly. For a good overview of how companies producing your brands are performing check out the WWF scorecard. 

3. Support sustainable palm oil initiatives

So outside of consumer choice, how can you make a difference to the rainforests through palm oil? For a more active approach, you can support the initiatives that help expand sustainable palm oil practices.

Sustainable palm oil requires farmers to be equipped with the know-how and tools to take the environment into account. About 40% of the global palm yield is produced by smallholder farmers. Across the palm oil supply chain, millions of smallholder farmers, due to a myriad of factors, fail to reach their full potential. Some of the barriers they have run into in the recent years include: a lack of access to the proper technology and resources; insufficient capacity to make use of the economies of scale; and the lack of financial or temporal space to take part in certification systems.  As such, smallholders are often unable to produce a living income for themselves and their families. This can be compounded by price drops of palm oil on the global market, deepening their dependence on cheaper, less sustainable methods of production. Needless to say, these issues don’t make reaching the sustainability standards of programmes such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil any easier. However, with the right programmes to support them, these smallholders can become a part of the solution.

This year, Solidaridad and IDH started implementing a new programme geared specifically at smallholder farmers, the National Initiatives for Sustainable and Climate Smart Oil Palm Smallholders, or NI-SCOPS. The programme was developed together with four important palm oil producing countries -Indonesia, Malaysia, Ghana and Nigeria- in partnership with the Dutch government. Within the NI-SCOPS programme these countries have committed to addressing their palm oil supply chains and tackling the negative impacts. The NI-SCOPS programme supports the farmers directly by helping them increase productivity through adoption of best management practices. It helps them by showcasing and encouraging important innovations in the field. Crucially, it also empowers them to build resilience to the impact of climate change, while still moving towards lower greenhouse gas emissions through more efficient land use. 

You can learn more about this programme on the Solidaridad website or at the website of IDH.

Conclusion: Saving the rainforests

Will buying sustainable palm oil be enough to save the rainforests? Of course not. The issues affecting the conservation of this vital ecosystem are widespread and involve a lot more products than palm oil. Yet, sustainable palm oil can make a valuable contribution. 

Instead of big statements on replacing palm oil, it is better to start asking the right questions: What is wrong with palm oil? And how can we contribute to fixing it? With the right questions and the right answers we can help save the rainforests from bad palm oil practices. 

Marieke Leegwater, Programme Manager Sustainable Palm Oil Choice/Solidaridad