Global vegetable oil production has steadily increased over the last 30 years. This trend is largely driven by increasing wealth in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China), national mandates for the use of biofuels and growing world populations.
As wealth and populations grow, so does the demand for beef. An increased cattle population requires more cattle feed which is made with vegetable oils, namely soybean or palm. The positive association of biofuel with environmental responsibility, health, and sustainability has spilled over into other markets. The cosmetics and personal care, homecare, and even pet care markets have all started to market towards natural and sustainable. The popularity of the natural market can be seen when one looks at the recent purchase of the certified organic grocery chain, WholeFoods (valued at 13.4 billion US dollars), by the largest online retailer in the US, Amazon. The mass market appeal of the green movement has led to the commoditization of this once niche market. The commoditization of a market always brings with it price reduction. It’s the drive to reduce costs that has fueled (no pun intended) the growth of the oil palm market. Palm oil is the most efficient vegetable oil in existence in that we can obtain the largest volume of oil from a single palm plant when compared to other vegetable or oil seed crops. The rampant abundance of this crop has squeezed out other oils that simply can’t compete when it comes to volume, and the abundance of product naturally drives price down. All of this should be a positive story with a happy ending. This is what we hoped for. Wasn’t it?
The unintended consequence of our aspiration to reduce greenhouse gases, the resulting natural movement, and popularization of the oil palm crop is destruction of primary rainforest and peatland. Peatland is the most efficient carbon sink in the world yet as of 2007, 1.7 x 106 hectares of oil palm plantations were planted on peatland (Page et al, 2007, Kompas 2010a). The peatland that exists in Indonesia and Malaysia are some of the oldest and deepest in the world which means they contain the most carbon. Unfortunately, the accepted technique for land clearance in these regions is “slash and burn”. Burning primary forest has been calculated to release 610 metric tons of CO2/hectare resulting in a carbon debt of 86 years. Burning peatland is calculated to release 6000 metric tons of CO2/hectare with a carbon debt of 840 years (Fargione et al. 2008). It is truly ironic that the biggest market for palm oil is biofuel, when the typical process (“slash and burn”) used to create palm plantations emits near equivalent levels of greenhouse gases as the combustion of fossil fuels. Along with greenhouse gas emissions, another consequence of deforestation is loss of habitat and since we are talking about the rainforest, much of this habitat is home to now critically endangered and endangered species that exist only in these unique ecosystems. There are also indigenous people who depend on these forests for survival and, in turn help to maintain the health of the rainforest in which they live.
The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil was created to repair the tarnished image of the oil palm industry by guaranteeing sustainably produced palm oil. Sadly, numerous complaints and evidence of corruption have revealed that the RSPO is nothing more than greenwashing at its best. Primary forest continues to get destroyed, peatlands are cleared, habitats are replaced with palm plantations, species are threatened, indigenous peoples’ rights are disregarded and the US Dept of Labor lists palm oil coming from Indonesia and Malaysia as being produced by child labor (and forced labor in Malaysia). Does this sound sustainable to you?