In an article titled “The Irreplaceable”, Bee Wilson sets out to explain how palm oil consumption has not only found its way over decades into almost every household on the planet, but has shifted the very way we live and consume daily.
If, at first glance, this might sound like an outlandish statement, consider the foaminess of everyday soap, the crunchiness of a bag of chips, buttery smoothness of a bar of chocolate and the widely advertised silkiness associated with almost every shampoo product.
All of these are a result of palm oil derivatives: stearic acid, palmitic acid, oleic acid and glycerine. If its protean ubiquity is not impressive enough, palm oil has soared to economic stardom for its ability to produce more oil per hectare than any other crop.
For context, extracting the same amount of oil from coconut palms would involve up to 10 times the amount of land. Coupled with access to a relatively cheap workforce, greater availability of land and willing partners in government, palm oil has cemented its position as the most efficient vegetable oil to date.
Economic models unanimously project a continuous rise in demand for this super crop through to 2050, as global populations expand, and demand for the associated products follow in step.
However, all economic projections have been missing one key variable in the balance sheet, and markets have already begun to respond to it.
The great debate: Oil versus habitat
Palm oil is currently competing for land in one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet.
Every hectare of oil produced by palm today was at one time home to giant forest trees that would have housed several species of birds, insects, mammals, reptiles and fungi.
Anti-palm advocates have leaned on charismatic species such as the orangutan as a symbolic representative of the many species that are on the cusp of extinction as a result of habitat loss.
The issue of biodiversity loss (whether perceived or real) has become a standard for the conscientious consumer all across the global North, where it is becoming commonplace for retailers to separate products with and without palm oil.
The issues here are complex and fraught with defamatory accusations on either side of the divide: The anti-palm lobbyists accuse palm growers of being callous with biodiversity, while palm growers accuse the lobbyists of having ulterior motives and a vested interest in alternative vegetable oils that are not as competitive nor efficient.
Digging to the truth of either of these claims is beyond the remits of this article, and perhaps less important.
The more important debate is whether outright bans or proactively switching to less efficient vegetable oils will result in a positive outcome for biodiversity and reduce deforestation.
The last five years offer useful insights, as anti-palm sentiments have reached all-time highs with the European Union (EU) enacting laws to restrict the import of palm products and pressuring companies to remove it from their products.
Nevertheless, palm oil prices have risen undeterred, supported by growing Asian markets and bolstered by a post-pandemic global food shortage. The economic prospects for palm oil are looking as bright and fortuitous as ever.
At this stage, the withdrawal of European markets will simply drive palm oil producing economies to seek partnerships with economies that are less conscientious and less sensitive to the things that cannot yet be accounted for in pricing — that is biodiversity and worker welfare.
The metric: The rise of one, the fall of many
The problems tied to biodiversity and oil palm plantations can be seen from two angles.
First, if biodiversity loss needs to be accounted for in the pricing of palm oil, it will require a system of weighting or assigning a metric for biodiversity.
Despite decades of research on the subject, these discussions are still in their infancy and are already rife with herculean challenges that will require great political and economic will — which leads me to the second point.
Political and economic will are strongly tied to market forces. If markets place little value on biodiversity protection, growers will then respond accordingly. This circles back to the problem of our conscientious consumers.
The shrinking of palm oil demand in the global North could spell disaster for biodiversity, as it weakens any incentive to make palm oil more biodiversity-friendly. Take, for example, a chocolate manufacturer in Europe that relies on palm oil to attain its buttery consistency. If the majority of its customer base begins to boycott the chocolate for its use of palm oil, the chocolate manufacturer will have no choice but to find alternatives, which then pushes the palm growers elsewhere.
In giving up palm oil entirely, the conscientious consumer relinquishes his or her power to influence how oil palm plantations are grown and managed.
The withdrawal of markets that are trying to act in the interest of biodiversity can only be justified under the notion that palm oil is intrinsically bad for biodiversity and can never be a force for good.
While it might be true that palm oil is unable to support as much biodiversity as forests, expecting plantation land to be returned to forest immediately is both naive and inconsiderate to vulnerable communities that are working hard to participate in the modern economy.
There are no simple solutions here, as any activity that takes away land from forest is going to be problematic. The key here is in trying to make this land as biodiversity friendly as possible and, thankfully, there is still ample room for more to be done, given sufficient pressure and incentive to do so.
The quest for land: Maturing a sustainable way forward
The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) made excellent headway with guiding planters to protect areas of high conservation value (HCV) or creating riparian buffers or enforcing strict “no hunting” laws within plantation grounds.
These measures are only the tip of the iceberg, as researchers continue to model and experiment with a myriad of tools that range from using high-tech drone imagery for biodiversity monitoring to maintaining simple pockets of “wild habitat” within plantations as step-wise refuges for wildlife.
The solutions are out there, and waiting to be field-tested, implemented and legislated, but will remain in the domain of academic journals unless the industry can muster the will to invest the time and energy in them.
The conscientious consumer wields incredible power to shape the future trajectory of this super crop, but can only do so by participating.
The old adage is a cliché, but truest today. To address the crisis of biodiversity loss, we need bridges, not walls.
Chrishen Gomez is a wildlife researcher at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, University of Oxford, where he is pursuing a PhD on wildlife genetics. He is a recipient of the Merdeka Award Grant for International Attachment and a National Geographic Explorer.
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