Oil palm (c) Valentine Reiss-Woolever

Palm oil boycotts may block the path to sustainability

Valentine Reiss-Woolever, a PhD student in the Insect Ecology Group, writes:

Bamboo straws, Nordic flight shame, and reusable tote bags – environmentally minded consumption is increasingly common. A buzzword in recent years, “conscientious consumption” describes our attempts to spend money with an awareness of how our choices affect the world outside of ourselves.

At the start of 2020, 64% of Germans said “living more sustainably” was a primary New Year’s resolution, while 22% of Americans said that being more eco-friendly would be their number-one goal. For these people, putting your money where your mouth is through shifts in dietary choices is a common first step. Food production is responsible for over 25% of greenhouse gas emissions, and half the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture. Because of this, certain products have been vilified by environmentalist groups. Few more so than palm oil, whose well intentioned opponents may be doing more harm than good.

Best for Britain’s campaign image against palm oil

When my research topic, sustainable oil palm cultivation, comes up in small-talk, people are generally very proud of their pro-orangutan opinions and shunning of Nutella – and they should be! They’re interested and active consumers, and more people should be willing to sacrifice over-indulgence for our planet’s wellbeing.

That’s the positive position I lead with before watching their face fall as I tell them that, in my opinion, most oil palm boycotts are well intentioned but misguided. People producing their own shampoo and cheese and living a life devoid of vegetable oils are doing a wonderful job. It’s undeniable; we should all consume fewer Kit-Kats and Cheetos and other processed products, and widespread monocultures such as oil palm should not cover over 13 million hectares of Indonesia and Malaysia. Optimally, a truly conscientious consumer would stop consuming all together.

However, this would be incredibly hard to achieve in our current culture. Buying things is fun, it makes us feel good, and fried things are delicious. This is unlikely to change, and therefore demand for vegetable oil is unlikely to wane. In fact, as populations grow and biofuels expand, demand for vegetable oils is projected to increase over the coming decades.

Oil palm plantation in Banting, Malaysia at the ESSTA project

Unless you are one of these truly self-sufficient, and incredibly rare, non-consumers, conscientious consumption of palm oil is more difficult than simply changing your latte order. One of the world’s most ubiquitous products, oil palm is in half of all consumer goods, from Dove soap to Cadbury chocolate. For this reason, boycotting efforts are often impossible to follow through on.

Palm oil is not only the world’s most heavily consumed vegetable oil, but it is also its most land-efficient; a hectare of oil palm produces 5-9 times more oil than the closest oil alternative. Furthermore, oil palm requires significantly fewer chemical inputs than other oil options. Without a favourable substitute, boycott efforts may just displace, and even increase, global deforestation as demand shifts to other vegetable oils. So, our best option is to make agricultural production as land- and resource-efficient as possible. That is where palm oil becomes not only an option, but perhaps a necessity, to meet the world’s growing demands. But how can we do this with a good conscience towards tropical forests and our orangutan cousins?

ESSTA’s community information signs, as displayed by one of the smallholder farmers at his convenience store

To enable sustainable palm oil production, private companies and governmental regulators must look towards research that informs cultivation and production decisions. That’s where work investigating the ecological effects of various forms of production has value. With several others in our lab, I work at the ESSTA project (Ecological and Social studies on Smallholder Tropical Agriculture) in Peninsular Malaysia. Through interdisciplinary research, we aim to understand the factors underpinning plantation management decisions and the effects of these inputs on the environmental and economic sustainability of oil palm.

I investigate the decisions smallholders make regarding chemical inputs, labour intensity, wildlife control, other crops, and planting strategies, and how these choices affect the plantation habitat structure, arthropod communities, ecosystem functions, and yield.

As John Buchanan, the head of Sustainable Food and Agriculture at Conservation International remarked:

“[it is unrealistic to believe] that market-based solutions alone could solve this if the government isn’t on board or doesn’t know what it’s doing”.

By using scientific research to identify cultivation strategies that balance the priorities of smallholders, conservationists, and consumers, governments and regulatory bodies may be able to enforce more sustainable production.

For now, supporting RSPO-certified palm oil, which accounts for 20% of current production, will help reinforce the importance of sustainable practice and support the farmers making an effort to change. Hopefully, through initiative from all stakeholders and dedicated research we can have our Nutella cake and eat it too.

Valentine is a member of the Insect Ecology Group. Follow them on Twitter: @InsectGroup

Discover how the Insect Ecology Group are working with industry representatives to support sustainable agriculture: Our Solutions are in Nature

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