Oil palm, the plant processed to become palm oil, thrives in tropical regions and can be grown with minimal costs to producers. Malaysia and Indonesia are particular sources, producing the most palm oil globally. Palm oil is everywhere. Lipstick, instant noodles, shampoo, chocolate, toothpaste, margarine, cookies, the list goes on. Yet when Brynn of the University of Edinburgh’s ConSci class asked her friends about palm oil during her research for an opinion piece on the topic, she was met with vacant gazes. Why do so few people know about this product? There is an alarming wealth of evidence showing palm oil production’s adverse effects on wildlife and biodiversity. Considering most palm oil is produced in the tropics, home to countless endemic and endangered species, tropical ecosystems face conflict with rising demand for this versatile oil.
Rising demand saw 55-59% of deforestation in both Indonesia and Malaysia (1990-2005) attributed to conversion to palm oil plantations. Destruction of natural environments leaves animals with no habitat options, and the loss of 85% of forest species due to palm oil has been reported. There are organisations attempting to counter this destruction. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil helps palm oil plantations employ systems of production that are beneficial for the local environment. In her opinion piece however, Brynn raises the argument: “how can you make something wildlife-friendly when one of its main undertakings is cutting down rainforest?”
Sustainable agriculture is a potential way of mitigating damage as a result of palm-oil production, and is comprised of three different parts: environmental, economic and social. Regarding the environmental aspect, scientists have been working on a forest fragmentation system by which forest species have vegetative havens and can migrate between areas of contiguous forest. On the socio-economic side of things, the Indonesian government has begun reclassifying areas designated for concessional timber logging as oil palm areas, driving the formation of industrial monoculture palm oil plantations. Brynn suggests that areas of the rainforest designed as timber concession zones be considered as protected areas that prevent palm-oil plantations from expanding further into rainforest. As these areas have managers with a legal duty to maintain the forest, they would prevent total deforestation and clearing for palm oil, in turn protecting wildlife inhabiting these areas.
The reason plantations and governments are not implementing sustainable methods of agriculture is simple. Money. Maintenance of biodiversity and wildlife equates to direct loss of profit for palm oil companies. There is no financial incentive for them to absorb costs and promote wildlife existence, so why would they?
Brynn suggests a way of inducing companies into adopting sustainable methods – “public shaming”. This would be analogous to the “shaming” of some individuals in California, who during the drought continue to use water excessively. The names of wasteful users are printed in newspapers, which produces great results and prevents excessive water usage.
Palm oil content would need to be advertised and labelled clearly for the public to understand the implications of purchasing non-sustainable oil. For this to occur, education is necessary. Relating palm oil production to economic and socio-political issues would be a way of communicating these problems to people, as suggested in Brynn’s opinion piece. As people buy more products with sustainably sourced palm oil, more profit will be generated for the “wildlife-friendly” organisations, inducing other plantations to practice sustainable agriculture and driving the price of sustainable products down, making them more accessible. Brynn highlights the necessity for integration of the scientific approach and the social demographic in tackling the issues surrounding palm oil production, and emphasises the need for diligent action.
By Struan Henderson