A 2018 animated Icelandic ad for a grocery store shows an adorable orangutang swinging around a young girl’s bedroom, causing destruction as he throws away her chocolate and shampoo.
Then it cuts to the orangutan’s home, a blighted, fiery forest. “There’s a human in my forest, and I don’t know what to do,” the orangutan pleads.
The widely-circulated ad was created by Greenpeace International, an environmental group aiming to lobby against the use of palm oil. The pathos-led ad went viral online, drawing about 318,000 views on Youtube. It raised conversation around palm oil production and its extraordinarily high environmental cost.
What is Palm Oil?
Palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the world. It is found in everyday products such as soaps, shampoos, ice cream, peanut butter, detergent, amongst many other household products. It is also used for biofuel.
Production has grown along with the rising global demand for vegetable oils. In 1980, 5.08 million tons of palm oil were produced. In 2000, that number rose to 22.22 million. By 2018, it had reached a staggering 71.45 million.
These numbers are particularly alarming because the trees that produce the oil only grow along a narrow band near the equator (bound by 10° N. to 10° S.).
These regions are known for their tropical rainforest and abundant biodiversity. This means that when farmers remove native plants to grow the palms from which the oil is produced, it has devastating effects on the environment.
Indonesia and Malaysia have been hit hardest by the rapid expansion of the crop.
Until around 2005, Brazil was the largest single source of tropical deforestation. Indonesia surpassed it.
In 2018, Indonesia accounted for more than half of the global oil palm production (40.57 million tons), followed by Malaysia, which produced 19.52 million tons.
Borneo and Sumatra, where it is also farmed, include a unique and rich selection of plants and wildlife. Borneo is home to 221 species of land-living mammals and 420 species of birds, along with 15,000 species of flowering plants and 3,000 of trees. These nations are the only places in the world where orangutans live in the wild.
Because of these reasons, endangered species have become the face of a movement to raise awareness about the crop’s production.
Dr. Derek Byerlee is an agriculturist and former policy advisor for the World Bank, who now lives in Coral Gables. He was commissioned by Stanford University in 2013 to research palm oil plantations and how to look ahead regarding sustainability.
The early 2010s were not Byerlee’s first run-in with these plantations. He had been a research fellow for Michigan State University in the 1970s and stationed in West Africa’s Sierra Leone, one of the first places where palm oil was mass-produced.
“There it was part of your landscape,” he recalls of his time in Sierra Leone. “It was an integral part of the local culture and landscape.”
When he was commissioned by Stanford, he says, his research focused on the supply and demand chain that has sparked this agricultural revolution. He published his findings in a 2017 book, “The Tropical Oil Crop Revolution: Food, Feed, Fuel, and Forest.”
Undeniably, palm oil is here to stay. When pressed on alternatives to palm oil (soybean, sunflower, or rapeseed), Byerlee says growing them has environmental costs. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” he says.
Part of the reason palm oil is sought after by crop growers is its incredibly high-yield rate. For 36% of global vegetable oil production, it requires only 8.6% of land used for this crop. Compare this to soybean oil, which has a negative value in terms of outputting crop yield. Soybean oil accounts for 25.5% of production while using 39% of land.
While a boycott of palm oil may actually do more harm than good (in terms of yield rates), and alternatives may not always be possible, there are ways to look ahead to a more sustainable future.
While the demand for palm oil continues to grow every year, there seem to be some silver linings. The EU is one of the leading importers of palm oil and previously used around half of their consumption for biofuel. In 2018, the European Parliament banned palm oils for biofuels. A huge win for environmentalists.
In 2021, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), introduced the Forest Act to the 117th Congress. It is aimed at combatting illegal deforestation by prohibiting the importation of products created in lands undergoing illegal deforestation.
The bill notes that in 2020, the US imported palm oil and palm kennel valued at more than 880 million from Indonesia, where the expansion of palm oil plantations is the largest driver of deforestation. Palm oil is listed first in covered commodities under this proposed bill.
The bill was read twice and referred to the finance committee in October. No action has been taken since then.
Organizations like the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) provide certification for suppliers of the crop. However, only 19% of palm oil production is covered by RSPO.
General Mills is the largest purchaser of palm oil in the United States. It is certified by the RSPO. To maintain certification, the organization requires yearly reports from companies. But in its latest progress report, General Mills stated it does not use the RSPO trademark.
The trademark would convey to consumers that the product contains sustainably sourced palm oil. But General Mills says this is unnecessary, citing “lack of consumer demand” and “low consumer awareness.”
Arguably consumers play a key role in palm oil’s history and future. Demand has been sparked by growing populations and a desire for cheaper oil.
“People were consuming, particularly switching to cheaper oils.’ Byerlee says. “There was a lot of substitution going on. People were previously consuming peanut oil, a hundred years ago, it was a major commodity in world trade and it basically disappeared.”
Now it seems consumers are being held accountable for an industry that has neglected to certify 81% of its product as sustainable and for low transparency due to lack of consumer awareness.
However, it seems more people are aware of the issue than companies like General Mills may believe. A recent survey asked 66 participants if they had ever heard of palm oil and 56 answered yes. After being presented with facts about palm oil and offered details about the RSPO, respondents were asked if they would be more likely to purchase from a company that used sustainable palm oil. More than 80% of respondents said yes.
Daniel Rodriguez is a South Floridian who typically does his shopping at Publix. He said he would not be more likely to buy a product just because it had the RSPO logo.
“Honestly, I don’t have the time to look at what ingredients products I buy have in them,” he says. “However, if I see a product, and it advertises they contain no palm oil, I will most likely buy that instead.”
However, Gabriela Cabrera of Boca Raton believes that buying certified sustainable products is a top priority. It will “help aid in the protection of the environment,” she says.
Byerlee described his research commissioned by Stanford as “Where did we come from? Where are we going?”
The final chapter of Byerlee’s book concludes that the future will not be like the past. While some believe deforestation will continue, the analysis from Byerlee and his colleagues sees “growth in demand for tropical oil crops slowing sharply in the years to 2050.”
He says the area currently covered by oil crops will not need much expansion to meet future demand. He also points out that growth in demand for biofuel feedstocks cannot maintain its current pace.
This has already played out in the European Union, which banned palm oil in biofuel back in 2018, just over one year after “The Tropical Oil crop Revolution” was published.
The landscape of the palm oil industry is continuously changing, and it seems more awareness has been brought to the issue of palm oil plantations in recent years.
Of course, there is still work to be done. Byerlee concluded a recent interview by saying, “In another few years, if I’m still alive, we can get back and look where we went wrong in our predictions.”