Have you heard of palm oil?  How about vegetable oil or olive oil?  Oils from plants, vegetables, seeds and nuts have been used for centuries all over the world for many different foods and products, so what makes palm oil such a controversial product?


What can be Done to Improve the Situation?

Instead of boycotting palm oil altogether, businesses are being encouraged to buy their palm oil from more sustainable sources. 

The RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) was set up in 2001, with representatives from 40% of the palm oil industry, to provide a set of ethical and ecological standards for the production of palm oil.  Farmers had to commit to practices that avoided habitat destruction and instead, try to find ways to increase the yield from the trees they already had.

Attempts are being made to breed from the most productive trees, genetically modifying plantations to be more productive over time. There are also big increases in yield to be had from changing the time that fertiliser is used. “Right now the average yield in Malaysia and Indonesia is 18 ½ tons of fresh fruit bunches per hectare. In places with the best management practices, they’re already getting 30 tons per hectare,” says Philip Taylor from the University of Colorado.

Sustainable palm oil farms are also being developed on non forest land in places such as Columbia, where people are being encouraged to grow palm oil instead of other illegal crops. 

In 2012 the UK Government set a commitment for 100% of the palm oil used in the UK to be from sustainable sources that don’t harm nature or people. In 2016 75% of the total palm oil imports to the UK were sustainable.  However, even when a palm oil mill labels its products as ‘sustainable’ it can be very difficult to prove whether this is true. It’s possible for an oil to be labelled in this way when only a tiny percentage of the palm fruits have come from a sustainable source. 

Combine this with the fact that certified palm oil is more expensive than non sustainable versions and clearly there its still a long way to go to improve things. Outside the EU, there is little interest in buying sustainable palm oil over cheaper versions and while this is the case, there will always be a limit to how effective the RSPO can be.

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