You can find palm oil in just about every type of product—hand soap, lipstick, cookies, supplements, peanut butter. It's even being used as biofuel. The relatively cheap commodity is noted for its stellar nutritional profile (similar to olive oil) and its lack of flavor and smell, allowing it to blend seamlessly into multiple applications. However, although it was once hailed as the future of "sustainable energy," palm oil is actually unsustainable and an absolute eco-nightmare, conservationists say.
"The rainforest in Indonesia is in flames and palm is one of the leading reasons," said Chris Wille, chief of sustainable agriculture for the New York City-based Rainforest Alliance, a non-governmental organization working to preserve biodiverse land areas. "This is a terrifically biodiverse and super important rainforest area, and they [palm producers] are just pushing it aside to plant this stuff."
Experts estimate nearly 2 million hectares of Indonesian rainforest are cleared each year for palm plantations. The palm industry saw a boom as consumers began avoiding trans fats. Manufacturers scrambled to find an alternative to hydrogenated oils, and palm oil became the solution, said Mark Murphy, assistant vice president of corporate affairs for Cargill, the largest United States importer of palm oil from Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Today, it’s biofuel opportunities that are driving up the oil’s value and leading to expanding plantations.
Approximately 85 percent of palm exports come from Indonesia and Malaysia. While total exports of palm and palm products increased by only 2.8 percent in Malaysia, total export earnings in the country jumped 20 percent in 2010, to $20 billion, said Sundram Kalyana, deputy CEO and director of science and environment for the Malaysian Palm Council, an organization devoted to marketing and promoting palm oil.
To further bolster the already thriving industry, the Indonesian and Malaysian ministers responsible for palm oil production traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to meet with top environment and agriculture cabinet officials, including Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Energy Secretary Stephen Chu. Environmental advocates were up in arms over what they speculated were meetings to encourage the U.S. government to promote palm oil imports.
"Palm oil is the only oil that could make regular petroleum look green," said Glen Hurowitz, a consultant for Climate Advisers, a firm specializing in U.S. climate change policy. "The ministers are likely to push Obama administration officials to declare palm oil 'carbon neutral' despite the immense amount of greenhouse gases emitted in its production."
The palm oil problem
Palm plantations are at the root of some startling statistics. Within 15 years, Climate Advisers forecasts 98 percent of the rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia will disappear—largely due to clear-cutting and burning to make room for palm fields. This clearing and burning has led Indonesia to be the world's third-largest emitter of greenhouse gas after China and the U.S. It's also because of deforestation in these countries that orangutans, Sumatran tigers and Sumatran rhinoceroses teeter on the brink of extinction. A study conducted by the Great Ape Trust, a scientific research facility based in Des Moines, Iowa, predicts orangutans will be the first great ape species no longer found in the wild unless rainforest deforestation is halted.
Palm plantations are also accused of a slew of social injustices, including child and slave labor and unsafe working conditions, according to reports from The Rainforest Action Network, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that promotes rainforest conservation.
To address these social and environmental concerns, the World Wildlife Fund, a nonprofit organization that focuses on conservation and endangered species, partnered with major players within the palm industry to form the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2004. The primary goal of the multistakeholder group has been to define and promote criteria for more sustainable practices. Even so, while the program has been under way for more than seven years, environmentalists say significant problems persist.
Green palm or greenwash?
"It has been six years after RSPO was put into operation but forests are still cleared and orangutans are continually killed," Novi Hardianto, program coordinator for the Jakarta, Indonesia-based Center for Orangutan Protection, said in a release. "All criteria on sustainable palm oil and the certification process are merely public lies."
How land is deemed appropriate for palm planting is among the criticisms of the RSPO program. Currently, as long as an area is not considered "high-value conservation forest," it's suitable for a plantation. Each country is allowed to interpret "high value" based on its own set of criteria.
Critics accuse government officials of loosely demarcating biodiverse areas in favor of aligning with the highly profitable logging industry. Indonesia has much tighter laws surrounding logging, so to skirt restrictions, outfits request to grow palm. Land is apparently cleared for planting, but in some cases seeds are never sown.
Which trees are exempt from RSPO standards is another critique. Oil can be obtained from anything planted before 2005 and still qualify as sustainable. Because the oil palm requires approximately seven years to bear fruit, palm planted in high-value conservation forest can still be RSPO certified.
Greenpeace argues that these loopholes allow palm plantations to join the RSPO, improve their image while doing very little to address sustainability.
Today, 24 growers and 100 palm oil mills are registered with the program. To obtain certification, growers and producers must adhere to eight principles, including: "commitment to transparency on environmental, social and legal issues; environmental responsibility with regard to waste, resource use, and climate; and responsible consideration for workers, individuals, and communities affected by palm oil production," according to the Worldwatch Institute, a globally focused environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C.
However, RSPO-certified producers are frequently blacklisted by manufacturers for not following the outlined criteria. A BBC documentary released last year showed Duta Palma, an RSPO-certified producer, clearing protected rainforest to make way for plantations. RSPO-certified Unilever halted business dealings with the company for the act and also froze transactions with PT Smart, another RSPO-certified producer, that same year for participating in unsustainable practices.
"The question is, if 7 or 9 percent of the palm in places like Indonesia is certified, are the orangutans safe? Is the water being conserved? Has the peat stopped burning? Has the deforestation stopped?" Wille said. "We're not sure. We think the certified plantations are better managed. But if you ask the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] on the ground there, the problems seem to continue apace."
A hard-to-replace ingredient
Palm may be high in monounsaturated fat, but that's its only similarity to olive oil. For environmentally-minded manufacturers, the ingredient is nearly impossible to replace.
"When we started developing Pangea soaps, we actually created the world's first organic palm-free soap," said Josh Onysko, founder of Boulder, Colo.-based Pangea Organics, which makes organic, fair-trade personal care products. "We used organic U.S.-grown soybean oil instead of palm. That basically led to us not trying to use palm in any of our products, although we still have one component that has a little bit of palm oil in it—and that’s glycerol stearate. Nobody in the industry has been able to make a replacement [for that]."
When Unilever, the world's biggest purchaser of palm oil, realized it wouldn't be able to find a solution ingredient to palm, the company was a key player in the founding of RSPO. The multinational conglomerate has pledged to purchase all of its 1.3 million annual tons of palm oil from certified sustainable plantations by 2015.
In addition to its ideal nutrient profile and lack of smell and flavor, the palm plant's astonishingly high yield makes palm oil the world's cheapest cooking oil. Palm plantations produce 3.6 tons of oil per hectare. Compare that to soy and rapeseed, which only produce half a ton in same land area. While palm accounts for 30 percent of the world's cooking oil, it occupies only 0.22 percent of the world's agricultural land, according to the Palm Oil Truth Foundation, an organization devoted to defending palm oil production.
Palm oil is also highly "fractionable," meaning that when it's cooked, its properties are easily separated into different products. For this reason, experts estimate palm oil (sometimes listed as vegetable oil) appears in 10 percent of grocery store items—from dishwashing liquid to cake.
"If a [manufacturer] wanted to replace it, he may go to olive oil. He may. But it's a pretty great oil in itself," said Len Monheit, executive director of New Hope Natural Media’s Global Supply Network. "Honestly, I think we'll see much more of a movement for more responsible harvesting and sustainability before we ever see this oil go away."
Consumer perceptions put pressure on manufacturers
Increasingly, consumer awareness of sustainability issues surrounding palm is leading more manufacturers to hunt for alternatives.
"I've tried different manufacturing techniques; I've experimented with cocoa butter and coconut oil," said Justin Gold, founder and CEO of Boulder, Colo.-based Justin's Nut Butter, which uses palm fruit oil from RSPO-certified AgroPalma, a Brazil-based producer. "If I could find another oil that added value to the product, I'd use it in a heartbeat, even if it cost more. I don't want consumers to have any negative perceptions of our company."
Most recently, when two Girl Scouts discovered palm oil in the cookies they sell, they called on the Girl Scouts of America to remove the ingredient. So far, nearly 70,000 people have signed the girls' petition.
But experts say encouraging U.S. and European companies to cut palm oil isn't the swiftest way to bring about environmental change. Europe and the U.S. buy only approximately 15 percent of the total 45 million metric tons of palm oil produced annually. The rest goes to Asian markets where sustainability isn't necessarily a top priority, Murphy said.
Looking for a palm replacement also isn't a solution. A high yield per hectare makes palm attractive to conservationists. Additionally, responsible palm operations provide much-needed jobs in Third World countries where the oil is primarily produced.
"Boycotts don't work," Wille said. "Just moving the problem from one crop to another doesn't really help in the long run because we face the same questions with other crops. The trend toward palm alternatives is stimulating the planting of rape and canola and other oil-yielding vegetables everywhere—including in Europe where land is even more precious. From an environmentalists' standpoint, we prefer intensively managed, high-production plantations because that concentrates the production in the minimal land mass."
Solutions begin with producers
Organizations such as the Rainforest Alliance are working to encourage more palm producers to adopt sustainable practices. A producer's primary motivation for converting to a sustainable operation is better plantation management, including greater productivity, worker retention and efficiency. RSPO-certified plantations also have access to more credit and premium markets and buyers who often pay more per ton.
The Rainforest Alliance is also working with the Indonesian government to stop rainforest deforestation.
"No more deforestation for palm period," Wille said. "There are plenty of degraded lands, huge areas of land that have already been cutover, they're so degraded that the forest won't easily reestablish there. So, plant palm there. That's rule number one."
Retailers and consumers can get involved by encouraging the RSPO to address loopholes within its certification program by introducing a biomass standard. The standard would require the maximum amount of gases released by plantations to be based on the forest's original biomass. Areas with dense, old-growth trees or carbon-rich peat would rank higher on the biomass standard than new-growth forests.
Additionally, retailers and consumers should ensure the products they buy are RSPO certified and limit products without certification. Such a move, experts say, might encourage more manufactures to seek certified palm oil which could ripple to manufactures across the globe.
"Even if all the palm plantations are certified, how far up the sustainability scale would they be? Would deforestation stop, would the orangutans be safe? You know, we don't know," Wille said. "But at this point, it's our best option. Consumer-facing companies will drive the market for sustainable palm oil, so it's up to consumers to be aware and put pressure on the brands they use."