• Richard

The Vexing Problem of Sourcing Sustainable Palm Oil

Most consumers are aware of the environmental problems created by the palm oil, most often produced from the fruit of oil palms: Elaeis guineensis. It is the most widely used "vegetable oil" used in the world, and is used in a vast array of consumer products. This popularity has led to untold environmental damage, from deforestation and soil degradation to habitat destruction crucial to charismatic, keystone species as the Orang-utan.

Deforestation - Credit: Getty Images (Sutanta Aditya)
Credit: Getty Images, 2018 (Sutanta Aditya)

These are environmental problems to which consumers demanded a response from industry, which (belatedly, it seems) led to the creation of a number of programmes and standards designed to mitigate or avoid the majority or problems created in palm oil cultivation. The "gold standard" of these is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO. One would hope that associated certifications could be trusted by the thoughtful consumer to make a responsible, ethical choice at the supermarket aisle. Sadly, recent reporting would appear to indicate otherwise: Environmental Research Letters, Vol. 13 No. 6 "Evaluating the effectiveness of palm oil certification in delivering multiple sustainability objectives".

CC BY-SA 3.0: Eleifert
CC BY-SA 3.0: Eleifert

As summarised in Aware Environmental, we find:

  • Around 100,000 orangutan were lost in Borneo between 1999 and 2015 due mainly to hunting and habitat clearing, according to a study earlier this year.

  • The researchers found orangutan populations declined at similar rates between RSPO-certified and non-certified plantations between 2009 and 2014.

  • A previous study had also found orangutan loss rates were about 2.2 per cent per year in both plantations, regardless of certification.

Is it reasonable to expect the average person to avoid palm oil products entirely? Probably not.

And, thus, we stumble upon yet another failure of the market - to deliver products that can be relied upon to comply with widely-held ethical concerns. It's much easier to give the impression of sustainability while placing concerns of profitability at the apex of commercial imperatives.

Your author wishes he had some easy answers to convey. Full transparency (easier said than done in an increasingly complex, globally integrated supply chain) is only the beginning. Will it happen in time to save our beloved species? Only time will tell.



Aware Environmental: http://www.awareenvironemental.com.au/

CC BY-SA 3.0: Eleifert (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Orang_Utan,_Semenggok_Forest_Reserve,_Sarawak,_Borneo,_Malaysia.JPG)

Environmental Research Letters: http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aac6f4/pdf