What is palm oil?
Palm oil is a vegetable oil made from palm fruits. It is used in a vast array of products, like baked goods (think bread, biscuits, muffins, etc.), peanut butter, margarine, cereals, chocolate, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, washing powder and biodiesel. In fact, it is estimated that as many as 50% of consumer goods contain it!
Its popularity as an ingredient is largely due to its versatility – as it can be used to create products with different melting points, consistencies and characteristics.
Another reason it is so popular is because it is a hugely productive crop. It requires 10 times less land than other, popular oil producing crops (like soya, rapeseed and sunflower), and can be harvested all year round. This high yield makes it very profitable to grow.
Why are there concerns about palm oil?
The main concern with palm oil is how it is grown.
- Labour abuses
Amnesty International’s report ‘The Great Palm Oil Scandal’ outlines a number of serious concerns about how the labour force is typically mistreated on palm oil plantations. Doing on-the-ground research at five different palm oil plantations, Amnesty learned that workers:
- work in excess of the legal number of working hours, without overtime pay
- are paid below the minimum wage
- are paid according to a complex wage system, which can include docking worker’s pay if they do not reach their target (regardless of the hours worked)
- can arbitrarily have their pay deducted or withheld
- are offered financial incentives (bonuses) to achieve targets – but the targets are so unreasonable that they usually use their spouses and children to try and reach them as they need them so desperately. Children as young as 8 drop out of school to assist their families with collecting palm fruits. This child labour is in contravention of the law, yet the farms turn a blind eye to it – and in fact encourage it by continuing with their incentives based pay, while knowing children are being used to help achieve the company’s targets.
- are forced to work under the threat of losing their livelihood – especially women, who are only casually employed, and therefore especially vulnerable to this type of threat
- do not have the correct equipment or knowledge about the pesticides they use for spraying – which is made far worse by the fact that many of these farms use toxic chemcials such as paraquat dichloride. Paraquat is a herbicide used to control weeds, and is banned in the EU and many other countries because of its toxicity. The Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture restricts its use to people who have been trained and certified to use it. Yet palm oil workers have no training, and often their safety gear (goggles, masks, gloves, boots, coveralls) is not replaced once worn out. Workers have complained about ill-health. Amnesty reports the companies sometimes run blood tests on their labour force. Those with abnormal blood results are simply moved to a different task. The results are never shared with, or explained to, the workers leaving them completely ignorant and vulnerable.
- Destruction of forests
Most palm oil is grown in Indonesia and Malaysia. To make space for plantations, huge swathes of their natural forests have been destroyed. These forests are the habitats for many indigenous species of animals, including orangutans and Sumatran tigers, whose populations are shrinking with their habitats. The Mighty Earth report ‘Palm Oils Black Box’, states:
“Companies have issued bounties to workers who beat, burn, or set dogs to orangutans to stop them from eating the young palm oil shoots that have replaced their ancient forest homes. Because orangutan mothers fiercely defend their babies, palm oil workers occasionally shoot the mothers and then sell the babies into the pet trade, all in violation of Indonesian law.”
One way in which the forests are cleared is, after removing large trees that can be used for their wood, the rest is set on fire and burned, releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Aside from contributing to global warming, the pollution is unhealthy for the nearby populations. The worst repercussions of this were felt in 2015, when 2 million hectares of Indonesian forest and peatland were set alight. For months, a toxic haze spread as far as Guam on mainland Southeast Asia. Columbia and Harvard conducted research into the haze, and estimated that is caused 100,300 premature deaths across Southeast Asia.
According to the World Bank, the effects of the haze cost the Indonesian government US$ 16 million. In response they created a law that allows them to pursue companies in Indonesia or Malaysia whose actions create this type of pollution. Nonetheless, incidents of intentional forest burning persist – on a significant scale, because of the growing demand for palm oil. (Click here for an example of this.)
- Increasing demand
Another concern, as outlined in the Mighty Earth report, is that this type of farming, and all of the environmental and worker concerns associated with it, is now spreading to other parts of the world. Smaller scales of production exist in Colombia, Nigeria, Thailand, and Papua New Guinea, and it is now spreading in to Africa. For example, the palm oil processing company, Olam, has negotiated two joint ventures with government in Gabon, giving them 300 000 hectare landbank. Much of Gabon (80%) is covered in forests as old as 2 million years, and home to a huge bird, animal and plant biodiversity. This includes 700 types of exotic birds, 320 species of orchids, gorillas, chimpanzees, forest elephants and mandrills.
Olam is one of the biggest palm oil traders in the industry, but has been heavily criticised because more than 99% of their suppliers are unknown. And without this public disclose, there is no clarity around the standards of the palm oil farming – whether child labour, deforestation or burning is used. Their activity in Gabon, and the risk of unethical farming practices, is hugely concerning, especially as there is already a lack of clarity in the agreements and expectations they are establishing with local farmers. While the report acknowledges that development is important, they cite many countries offering large sums of money to aid sustainable development – which would be more likely to help Gabon’s development in the long term, and preserve their valuable natural assets.
What has been done?
In response to these concerns about the industry, a non-profit body was established evaluate and regulate the industry, called Roundtable for Sustainable Palm-Oil (RSPO). However, unfortunately it has not proven to be very effective, as many of the guidelines are voluntary, and members who do not adhere face no repercussions. There have also been allegations of the RSPO colluding with members in cover-ups.
The requirements for sustainable certification are also minimal. Only 5% of a supplier’s palm oil needs to be sustainable for them to use the certified label, regardless of how the other 95% of palm oil was obtained.
It’s hard to know what the right thing to do is. You could try to boycott products with palm oil in them. However this is a little tricky – click here to discover the alternative names that palm oil can be listed under, which you will need to be alert to. It is likely to be hugely restrictive if you avoid all of these.
Plus, there is, of course, also the fact that the palm oil industry is employing people and giving them a livelihood. According to the RSPO, 72% of Indonesians lived on $1.90 a day in 1984, and by 2010, that number had dropped to less than 16%. I’m unclear on whether this accounts for inflation over the 26 years, but the point exists that people are benefiting from employment in the industry. And maybe working to improve the industry will do more good for them, than trying to shut it down.
I’ve asked all of the brands I’ve contacted if they use RSPO-approved palm oil. While, as stated, this is not perfect, at least helps demonstrate to them that consumers do care about this issue, and will hopefully encourage them to persist in trying to source more ethical palm oil. The next thing I want to do is lobby for the RSPO to be more effective – or for an alternative solution to be presented, so that the industry can become more sustainable and ethical. There are a number of campaigns to get involved in – as organized and outlined by the Rainforest Action Network here.
What do you think is the best way to tackle this problem?