What does palm oil have to do with the climate? A lot, as it turns out. Palm oil, which is pressed from the fruit of the oil palm, accounts for about a third of the world’s vegetable oil production, and two-thirds of the world’s vegetable oil that is traded internationally. It is used as both a cooking oil and as a components of many processed foods including cookies, candy, soap, cosmetics, frozen dinners, and much more. Its use is on the rise, particularly as increased understanding about the risks of trans-fats have brought greater demand for this highly saturated vegetable oil fat that is similar to coconut oil in its properties.
Unfortunately, palm oil farming also accounts for a huge amount of tropical deforestation as well. Tropical rain forests in southeastern Asia are being cleared at an astonishingly rapid rate to make way for palm oil plantations, leading to widespread habitat destruction and even more pressure on already endangered wildlife populations, including critically endangered orangutan populations. And of course, tropical deforestation releases huge amounts of carbon. Of particular concern is the fact that many palm plantations are established on former peatlands, themselves rich storage areas for carbon sequestration whose carbon storage capacity is greatly undermined when converted to monocultural agriculture. In further bad news for the climate, its not only the direct conversion of forested and peatland to agriculture that makes palm oil agriculture so devastating. In addition, palm oil processing leads to plenty of agricultural waste byproducts, which are sent into wastewater lagoons where they create huge amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Indonesia is on track to double its acreage of palm oil plantations from 24 million acres in 2009 to 49 acres in 2020- with potentially devastating effects on wildlife and the climate. A recent study in nature estimated that the expansion of palm oil plantations in the Kalimantan province of Borneo could account for about a fifth of the country’s entire greenhouse gas emissions.
This is not to say that this voracious conversion of high-carbon-storage lands and enormous waste by-products are how this industry has to operate; and there are some glimmers of hope that there are opportunities to make meaningful changes in the palm oil industry. Groups like the Sustainable Palm Oil Platform and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) are looking at ways to reduce the impacts of farming practices, including reducing or eliminating burning to clear forest acreage, and looking to degraded agricultural lands for palm oil sites instead of virgin forest. Biogas capture systems have been proposed as a way of capturing and using the methane released from the waste materials, and some companies have moved towards biomass energy from the byproducts of palm oil production as feedstock for powering their processing plants. RSPO is creating a certification system that brings consistency to the commitments that palm oil suppliers and end-users make, so that we can have higher confidence that a sustainably harvested palm oil is what it says it is, and accordingly, participants can command higher market prices for their product. However, until we have stronger carbon regulation and pricing structures in place, many of these changes are subject to the good will and international pressure on companies to do the right thing since, while the price for palm oil is strong, many of these forests will be worth more dead than alive.
What can we do as a consumers? Its hard to just look at a box of cookies or soap and know where the palm oil in it might have been sourced from; however, the RSPO trademark is being used by some manufacturers, so it is worth looking for that as one indication of a commitment to sustainable palm oil sourcing. Groups like Palm Oil Consumers Action are a great source of information on companies that have taken the right steps to source their palm oil from responsible suppliers that have made commitments to reducing the impacts of their product. This group is also are actively working on legislative initiatives to ask the US to reject conventional palm oil- you can find links to action opportunities here. I signed my state-based petition asking our governor and US Senator to ask for them to prioritize sustainably grown palm oil for importation into our state and country.
On a household level, I just checked through our pantry for palm oil as well. We don’t buy a huge amount of processed food, but yep, there it was in our family’s Girl Scout cookies. Looks like a letter to Girl Scouts asking them about their palm oil sourcing policies might be a good next Action to take!