Palm oil production has been a major contributor to deforestation in tropical regions, including Indonesia, driven by global demand for this cheap and versatile vegetable oil. Over the past 13 years, forests covering an area nearly twice the size of the UK were destroyed to make way for plantations. The effects are devastating – especially for orangutans and their rainforest home.
Up to 85% of species are lost when rainforest is converted into oil palm plantations. So should consumers boycott palm oil? The answer, which may surprise you, is no.
While intentions are good, the consequences of boycotting palm oil could be very damaging. A boycott could lead to prices being driven down, which could in turn increase demand from less ‘visible’ uses of palm oil, such as biofuels and livestock feed. This would also make it less appealing for oil palm growers to produce palm oil in an environmentally sustainable way.
Also, if the demand for palm oil shrinks globally, corporations and smallholder farmers could switch to an alternative crop. Oil palms are the most productive oil crop in the world, producing around 35% of global vegetable oil supplies on less than 10% of the total land under oil crops. A switch to another type of edible vegetable oil (such as soybean oil) would require up to nine times as much land to produce the same yield. This would lead to more deforestation and biodiversity loss, not less.
It could also affect the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Indonesia and Malaysia. Over 4.5 million people in Indonesia alone rely on the palm oil industry as their primary source of income.
If the answer is not to boycott palm oil, what is it?
Consumers are becoming more aware of the small changes we can make that will have big benefits for our natural world. One small change that would make a big difference would be to buy from brands that use deforestation-free palm oil. We urge retailers to stock brands that use sustainable palm oil, certified by the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), whose standards stipulate that palm oil operations must be free from deforestation, destruction of peatlands and protect human rights.
One condition that a plantation must meet to be certified as sustainable is that any high conservation value forests within their area of operations must be protected. This means that forest patches and corridors, which provide habitat for wildlife and enable animals like orangutans to move through the landscape, are left standing rather than being bulldozed.
When oil palms are grown on already-degraded land (such as disused farmlands), carbon emissions can be reduced by over 99% compared with clearing rainforests to make way for plantations. If there is more demand for sustainable palm oil, farmers will have more incentives to use more environmentally friendly methods, and we can drive the whole industry in the right direction. There is a huge difference between conventional palm oil, and sustainable palm oil, which is produced without harming wildlife, forests, people or the climate.
Whole Earth uses RSPO approved palm oil and are working with us to help raise awareness of sustainable palm oil. The brand has pledged to plant 20,000 trees to help restore and protect the Forever Forest in Sumatra, which is home to a diverse range of wildlife, including orangutans and elephants.
SOS works closely with responsible brands to drive greater awareness and demand for sustainable, deforestation-free palm oil. These commitments are making a big difference – we have seen the rate of forest loss linked to the palm oil industry plummet in recent years. This is ultimately good news for orangutans and other wildlife, as well as for communities in producer countries, the global climate – and for consumers, who can make positive choices that support real conservation impact.