Palm oil production has, without question, had a huge impact on the environment in many tropical regions; whether that be loss of habitat for critically endangered species such as orangutans and tigers, choking smog across Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, or the effect on global warming from the burning of forests and the draining of tropical peat bogs.
So how can palm oil possibly be sustainable? Well, not doing the above is a good start.
All the palm oil produced where I work is certified as sustainable by the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and the Rainforest Alliance.
The RSPO is a membership organisation that includes companies that produce, trade, use or invest in palm oil, as well as NGOs dedicated to conservation and positive social development. The Rainforest Alliance is an independent, non-profit organisation that works with farmers, foresters, communities, governments, and environmentalists. It is dedicated to conserving biodiversity and ensuring sustainable livelihoods.
We are audited usually twice a year by external auditors to make sure we are abiding by the regulations of RSPO and the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SANs).
This commitment means that we are not allowed to plant any new plantations on land that was cleared of its original forest after 2005. Any subsequent regrowth on these areas must still be cleared in order to allow planting however we have a no burn practice. The vegetation is piled into rows and allowed to decompose naturally. This doesn’t bring the forest back, but it does mean we won’t damage any more. Any new plantations need to be on areas that were previously logging sites, old coconut plantations, grassland areas or ranches. In addition to this even if an area was felled before 2005 we are still required to carry out an environmental audit on that area to identify things such as,
• Is it an area of High Conservation Value?
• Is there peat in the soil?
• Is it an area of High Carbon stock? (e.g. a forest or thick bush)
• Does it have cultural significance to local people?
If some of the area we would like to plant has any of the above then these areas are excluded. If they are within the boundaries of a current plantations, then these areas are left untouched and classified as reserve areas. We are also required to leave buffer zones along all natural waterways. These provide havens for wildlife and green pathways through the plantations to allow for the movement of insects, birds and animals. We have a responsibility to look after all reserve areas and buffer zones within our plantations, and as part of our continuous improvement plan we are required to ensure all old plantations, planted before we adopted the RSPO principals, have buffer zones reinstated.
We do NOT cut down primary rainforest, we do NOT burn and we do NOT drain areas of peat bog.
Does that mean sustainability is covered?
The sustainability of the product also covers,
• How much and what herbicides and pesticides we use,
• How we look after our workers with regards to training, safety, education, healthcare and housing,
• How we deal with the neighbouring landowners, or those who we lease land from,
• How much hydrocarbons we use,
• How we deal with our waste, and many more criteria.
Sustainability is also about getting the maximum amount of oil from the least amount of input; and that includes the least amount of land.
Oil palm is the highest yielding edible oil in terms of litres/ha (apart from oil from algae that hasn’t been commercialised as far as I know). On our plantations you would expect to produce about 7,000l of oil from 1 hectare of land in a year in some areas we will get 8,000l. The next highest yielding edible oil is probably coconut oil at about 1,500l per ha. With the current popularity of coconut oil it should be remembered that coconuts are grown in, and require the same conditions as oil palm. The second most widely consumed oil is from soya beans. This is grown across large areas of South America, however, the yield for soya is similar to coconut. To get the same about of soya oil, as we get per hectare from palm oil, then you need to plant 5 times as much land. You must add to this the fact that virtually all soya production is genetically modified. As far as I am aware there is no GM palm oil, we certainly don’t produce any. Canola (oilseed rape) has a similar yield to soya bean and sunflower oil has a yield less than half that of Canola.
Please the next time you see posts asking you to boycott palm oil on social media, or people are telling you how bad it is for the environment, remember that not all palm oil is created equal. It is beneficial to society as a whole that people think sensibly about what they buy in the shops. A lot of palm oil is grown without regulation, on drained peat soils, on virgin rainforest land and these companies are doing a lot of damage to the environment.
Be an educated consumer. Look for the RSPO logo or Rainforest Alliance green frog when buying products, and remember that palm oil is in everything from shampoo to chocolate, make-up to peanut butter.
I have posted a useful link to facts and figures about palm oil below;