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Ending the climate crisis means creating a society that is going in the right direction at the right speed by 2030, a rate of change that will lead to zero net emissions before 2050. That means halving emissions by 2030 and then halving again by 2040. Regeneration starts now.

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Palm fruit being moved into-high pressure steam chambers to remove impurities.

Palm fruit being moved into-high pressure steam chambers to remove impurities. The Sapi palm oil plantation is said to be the largest palm oil trader in the world. One hectare produces six tons of palm oil (soy oil produces one ton per hectare).

Credit: George Steinmetz

Palm Oil

Call to action:

The conversion of tropical forests to palm oil plantations devastates ecosystems, causing erosion, pollution, and the loss of critical habitat for endangered species. The destruction of tropical forests must end. Palm oil must be produced regeneratively; governments and corporations need to be held accountable for their roles; and consumers must use the product responsibly.

Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world, found in a variety of processed foods, and body care products. It is a source of biofuel and animal feed. Palm oil plantations destroy rainforests and imperil endangered species, including orangutans, rhinos, gibbons, and tigers. The destruction is expanding. The loss of rainforests damages a global sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide. Smoke from fires generates air pollution and greenhouse gases. Chemicals in the milling process poison waterways. Labor conditions are poor and the rights of Indigenous communities are abused. Criticism of the industry has led to violent reprisals. Reforms are necessary, led by consumers and governments. The demand for palm oil must be reduced. Degraded lands need to be restored and fragmented wildlife habitats reconnected.

Action Items

Individuals

Learn why palm oil production is so destructive to tropical forests, and what its consequences are. Native to west Africa, palm oil trees grow in wet tropical environments. They are highly productive and live up to thirty years. Palm fruit is versatile. It produces cooking oil. It is used in processed foods as an additive. Nearly half of the world’s population consumes palm oil as part of their diet. Palm oil’s fat content can reach 40 percent and is linked to cardiovascular disease. Palm oil production is a major cause of deforestation and habitat destruction in Malaysia and Indonesia, contributing to climate change. Palm tree plantations are ruining some of the most biologically diverse places on earth. See Tropical Forests Nexus and Degraded Land Restoration Nexus.

Join a campaign that targets corporations and governments involved in destructive palm oil production and use. Palm oil production operated out of the public eye for years. However, campaigns by local activists, conservation organizations, and governments shined spotlights on the damage caused by the palm oil industry. In 2004, a coalition of businesses formed the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to certify less destructive practices. In 2018, the group was pressured again to toughen its standards. International pressure has been brought to bear on nations to enforce their laws. Pressure is building on the Indonesian government to extend a ban on new palm oil plantations. (See Key Players below.) Campaigns include:

Demand accountability and sustainability in retail palm oil products. Although the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) provides a seal that tells buyers whether products have met its standards, a recent analysis has cast doubt on whether the standards are actually meaningful. There are other certification standards, including the International Palm Oil Free Trademark and one by the Orangutan Alliance. The Palm Oil Innovation Group is a multistakeholder group of NGOs and companies.

  • Food brands are failing to live up to promises to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains and products.
  • Shoppers should study the ingredient list on their favorite food or household product to determine if it contains palm oil.
  • Scorecards on companies are available from the Rainforest Action Network, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the World Wildlife Fund.
  • Here is a report (2020) by World Wildlife Fund that compares the record of companies against their pledges to buy responsibly produced palm oil.
  • Here is a similar report from Greenpeace International.
  • Here is a report by Conservation International on sustainable palm oil.
  • Here is the website for the Accountability Framework initiative (AFi), a collaboration of conservation groups, including the National Wildlife Federation, the Rainforest Alliance, the Nature Conservancy, and others to build and scale up ethical supply chains for forest products.
  • Check the rankings of companies most responsible for tropical forest destruction in general before buying a product. This organization ranks companies on their impacts.
  • Here is a list of cruelty-free (no animal testing) brands.

Buy products that either deliberately exclude palm oil as an ingredient or contain responsibly sourced palm oil, even though they can cost more. Consumers can help by avoiding products that contain commodity palm oil and by being willing to pay a premium price for responsibly produced oil.

  • Many types of highly processed food contain palm oil. Avoiding these foods will reduce your exposure to palm oil and improve your health.
  • Palm oil is listed or included under many different names on products. Names to watch out for: palmate, palmitate, palmolein, glyceryl, stearate, stearic acid, elaeis guineensis, palmitic acid, palm stearine, palmitoyl oxostearamide, and palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3.
  • Here is a list of brands in the UK that score poorly for their use of palm oil.
  • Here is a list of the types of self-care, household, and medicinal products that have palm oil.
  • Products Without Palm Oil is a website that lists a variety of certified food, products, and recipes that do not contain palm oil. It also discusses allergies connected to the oil.
  • The International Palm Oil Free Certification Trademark program is nonprofit organization that certifies palm-oil-free products, identified by its trademark. Here is its Facebook page.
  • Here is a guide to palm oil-free products from the Orangutan Foundation.
  • Palm Done Right is a network of companies that grow and use organic, deforestation-free palm oil. Here is a list of their brand partners, including Dr. Bronner’s, Jovial, Pacha, Grove, and many more.
  • The company Natural Habitats sells certified organic palm oil products from smallholder farms in Ecuador.
  • Nutiva makes a certified organic, fair trade Ecuadorian Red Palm Oil.
  • Daabon produces certified organic palm oil from its farm in Colombia.

Reduce your consumption of all tropical forest-based commodities. We should reduce the consumption of all commodities produced from tropical forests, including cattle, soy, and wood (timber and pulp). Reducing consumer demand for these products will lower the pressure on tropical forests and allow them to be protected and regenerated. See Tropical Forests Nexus.

Make a donation to an organization that protects and restores tropical forests and supports the rights of Indigenous peoples. Nongovernmental organizations play a critical role in the defense of tropical forests and Indigenous peoples around the world. Many of them work closely with Indigenous peoples and local communities to protect forests. Supporting these organizations with a donation or membership is vital to their success. (See Key Players below.)

Join a social media site run by an advocate for tropical forests. A sampling of social media sites:

Groups

Palm oil growers and manufacturers

Find ways to stop destroying rainforests. Palm oil companies, including farmers and processors, must meet future demand without further forest and ecosystem destruction, particularly intact, high-carbon, primary (old growth) forests. The expansion of palm oil plantations into secondary forests or other low-carbon areas needs to be done sustainably or curtailed. Strategies include:

Produce food and other goods that meet consumer demand for sustainably grown palm oil. (See Individuals above.)

  • Here is a study of the added value possibilities for palm oil grown and processed in west Africa.

Restore degraded rainforest. Passive restoration is simple and low cost. It focuses on releasing land from unsustainable use through protective measures that allow natural regeneration and succession. Active restoration involves planting and cultivating native seedlings as well as removing invasive species. Both can increase the quantity of carbon sequestration, though active restoration does so more quickly. Active restoration is usually employed in areas where soil has been severely degraded and where natural seedbanks are not present. See Degraded Land Restoration.

Companies

Be accountable. Companies that manufacture products containing palm oil or are involved in the processing, trading, and supply of palm oil need to abide by robust, verifiable, mandatory standards for responsible sourcing and production, including the cessation of rainforest conversion and destruction. These standards must become policies, and companies must require their partners and suppliers to adhere to them. Companies need to make time-bound commitments and stick to their promises.

  • Ensure traceability beyond the oil mill to the source farm or plantation in order to monitor and mitigate environmental and social risks and ensure that raw materials are not contributing to tropical deforestation. This would send a strong signal to the palm oil marketplace.
  • Embrace transparency by reporting on palm oil sources and usage, as well as progress on company pledges and goals annually. Utilize new technology, including satellite monitoring of plantations and deforestation.
  • Ensure commitments and actions cover the entire corporate group, apply to all countries in which the company operates, and covers all the types of palm oil used.
  • Invest in projects on the ground that support the conservation and restoration of rainforests and support smallholder farmers.
  • Support policy action that stops deforestation and create legislation requiring legal and sustainable palm oil production.
  • End the use of palm oil in animal feed and pet food.

Consider using alternate vegetable oils. Properties similar to palm oil can be created by partially hydrogenating and blending oils from shea, sal, jojoba, kokum, illipé, jatropha, and mango kernels. These plants can be grown regeneratively as part of agroforestry projects.

Support the development and use of synthetic palm oil as a replacement for rainforest-derived oil. Technological advances in genetics and microbial manufacture in laboratory settings have allowed the creation a synthetic oil with a chemical profile identical to palm oil. The effort has drawn financial support and interest from European suppliers of palm oil. Researchers at the University of Bath in the U.K. and the Technical University of Munich are developing a synthetic palm oil that bypasses the need for land-based feedstock, such as sugar derived from sugarcane. According to Bonsucro, a nonprofit organization that certifies environmentally friendly sugarcane, less than 5 percent of the sugar worldwide is grown sustainably. Economic challenges to synthetic palm oil include cost and scaling up to meet potential commercial demand. Companies developing synthetic palm oil include:

Governance

Pass legislation that identifies, regulates, or prohibits products that contribute to the destruction of rainforests, including palm oil products.

Stop violence against Indigenous peoples and their land. Indigenous peoples across Indonesia are being denied prior consent to their ancestral land under the palm oil plantation assault. The nation’s least-developed province, Papua, home to critical rainforest and hundreds of Indigenous tribes, is being targeted by palm oil companies for development. The voices of Indigenous peoples are being suppressed and ignored.

Tell the truth. The scale and location of rainforest destruction has been misrepresented and obscured by the Indonesian government, as well as other governments. Repeatedly, officials insist that Indonesia had learned its lesson about deforestation and solved its palm oil problem. They painted a picture of an industry on a sustainable path, focused on increasing yields, not expanding footprints. They lied.

Support public-private efforts that aim to protect rainforests and enhance climate action. In 2021, a group of governments and companies announced the formation of the Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest finance coalition (LEAF), which aims to raise $1 billion to accelerate climate action by providing results-based finance and establishing a carbon credit marketplace to help countries protect their tropical forests. It builds on and expands the REDD+ program developed by the UN, which has faced criticism. It also builds on the Green Climate Fund, which last year paid the Indonesian government $103.8m through REDD+. The LEAF initiative is intended to be the start of the largest-ever public-private effort to help protect tropical forests and the people depending on them. The U.S., U.K., Norway, Amazon, Nestlé, Unilever, and Airbnb are among the governments and corporations that have signed on.

Bad Actors

Corporations that make processed food and household products continue to use palm oil, including:

Learn

Read

Planet Palm: How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything—and Endangered the World by Jocelyn C. Zuckerman (New Press, 2021)

Mongabay, an international environmental new service

Rainforest Action Network’s archives on palm oil and rainforests.

News from the Center for Sustainable Palm Oil Studies, an industry think tank.

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