You can find palm oil in around half the packaged products in your local supermarket – in instant noodles, pizza dough, lipstick, toothpaste, chocolate, soap, shampoo, bread and biscuits, writes Jonny Hughes.
Global production has boomed in recent years, from 4.5 million tonnes in 1980 to 70 million tonnes. The environmental cost has been incalculable. Many conservation professionals I speak to cite the destruction of the tropical forests of Indonesia and Malaysia as the world’s number one unfolding environmental disaster.
Every year between 750 and 1,250 orang-utans are killed in areas where palm oil agriculture is expanding. A further 10,000 orang-utans live in areas where government concessions have been granted. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that global palm oil production directly threatens 193 species on its Red List.
Humans are also affected. As tropical forests are cleared, the peat on which they grow is often burned, releasing billions of tonnes of carbon in the atmosphere and creating life-threatening hazes. In 2015 the haze crisis in Southeast Asia caused severe respiratory illnesses in over half a million Indonesians, forcing Jakarta to deploy thousands of troops and seek international help.
Well done then to Iceland Foods for committing to remove all palm oil from its own-brand range before Christmas. Using a Disney-style Greenpeace animation, Iceland made an advert to get the good news across, but it has been banned for being ‘too political’. Iceland’s managing director said he was “absolutely gutted” – though the clip has gone viral on social media.
Is Iceland right, is it right to ban palm oil? Should others follow its lead? Oil palm plantations produce 35 per cent of global vegetable oil on less than 10 per cent of the land allocated to oil crops. Oil palm also yields up to nine times more oil per unit area than other oil crops, making its land footprint per calorie much lower than rapeseed, soya or sunflower oil. If we banned palm oil without reducing demand for vegetable oil, the expansion of other oil crops could place serious pressures on already stressed agricultural ecosystems.
The solution to the palm oil crisis is therefore complex but there are three actions that are needed urgently. First, strict protection of all remaining primary forests so there is no further conversion to plantation monocultures. Second, partial ecological restoration of existing plantations to be more orang-utan friendly. This means less intensive oil production and more connected patches of restored forests through which orang-utans and other species can move. Restoration of peat swamp forests should be a top priority here given their importance as carbon stores and habitats. Third, phasing out the use of palm oil for bio-fuels and other non-food uses where less environmentally damaging alternatives are available. As consumers, we can all help facilitate these actions by only buying palm oil products certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
Jonny Hughes is Scottish Wildlife Trust’s chief executive. Follow him on Twitter @JonnyEcology.