On a recent trip to Costa Rica, I travelled from San Jose to Quepos and encountered a huge (and I mean, huge) palm oil plantation. As we drove further into the fronded forest, I noticed a despondency rising within me. So much primary and secondary forest lost to this oil-bearing tree. When I hear the words, 'palm' and 'oil' I immediately think 'bad'. My reaction to the Costa Rican palm forest was based on an overarching belief that ALL palm oil is produced through deforestation with the loss of an incalculable amount of wildlife and bio-diversity. But, was that really what I was seeing? Is all palm oil really that awful? I didn't know.
I decided to research the subject and initially encountered page after page of conflicting arguments which seemingly contradicted everything and everybody. In so many cases, the genuine facts seemed to be lost among bloated reams of misinformation which made an informed opinion almost impossible. Should I or shouldn't I turn my back on palm oil? What's the truth? And how can that truth be distilled in to a handful of helpful paragraphs that make sense?
To answer that, the first place to start is with palm oil itself. Palm oil trees yield considerably more product than their oil bearing cousins which gives them a sizeable economic advantage; more oil on less land. Figures suggest that per hectare, 4 to 10 times the amount of oil can be produced from palms compared to rape, sunflower or groundnuts, for example. And it's a very adaptable vegetable oil offering human health benefits which contribute to the reason why it's found in over 50% of supermarket foods.
It doesn't take a business genius to know that food manufacturers are going to want to get their hands on this wonderfully adaptable, cost-efficient and healthy oil. The problem, however, is what needs to be done to meet the growing demand. Oil palms love wet and humid conditions such as those found in rain forests so huge swathes of jungle are cut down to make way for palm oil plantations. After all, a bio-diverse and ecologically rich jungle doesn't compare to the profitability of a palm oil farm, right? High demand, money, jobs...it's all there for the taking. And if history tells us anything, rare plant and animal species will always play second fiddle to man-made money making schemes. Just look at the 80,000 acres of rain forest that disappears from the earth every day. And then there's the production process that churns out tonnes of pollution-causing effluent. This infiltrates the air and water supplies having a negative effect on all wildlife including humans.
So, palm oil itself is good but making it is bad. Therefore, shouldn't we just boycott it? Well, no. As consumers, our relationship with palm oil throws up a bit of a paradox. It's a situation where the most effective change isn't set about by a blanket boycott, but by continually squaring up to those manufacturers who abuse its production, while fervently supporting those who DON'T. Because oil palms create such a high yield per hectare, a boycott will force unethical manufacturers to replace it with a 'less emotive' vegetable oil. It will almost certainly be an oil that requires more land to offer the same yield thus and require expanded deforestation while generating additional pollution etc.
The single most effective strategy, therefore, is to reach out to manufacturers and tell them that they're indirectly responsible for creating a product that's contributing to the decimation of ecosystems and let them know that you'll be making a choice to support their competitors who invest in sustainability. Those outwardly focussed businesses who detail exactly where their palm oil comes from. At the very least, they will cite RSPO certification (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil). They will want consumers to know that their money is supporting positive change; initiatives to educate farmers on how to maximise their yields and eradicate the need for more farms. And if a new farm is needed, to locate it on carefully researched baron land that offers no existing biodiversity. Movements to create jobs with fair pay and investment in the community. And the support of new technologies to produce oil with minimal pollution.
Palm oil is here to stay. And it should be...it's healthy, economically viable and efficient. But, farming practices need to change drastically. And in some cases, they are. We, the consumer, hold much of the power. By rallying behind those that provide a foundation for sustainability, we will assist the hand of change. No forest should be destroyed, animal uprooted or river polluted at the cost of a biscuit or a piece of cake and we should never tire of letting food manufacturers know that.