Update 3 (afternoon, 24 April 2021): I still don’t believe there is such a thing as ‘sustainable’ palm oil
If you search ‘palm oil you’ll find a plethora of articles arguing that boycotting palm oil is bad and that we should all be buying sustainable palm oil. It seems obvious that there has been a concerted and highly organised campaign by those with with vested interests (huge amounts of profit) to place such propaganda. I think this article – The Truth About “Sustainable” Palm Oil – describes the reality. If you believe in safeguarding the biosphere and the rights of indigenous peoples I think boycotting palm oil is the sensible thing to do.
…And if you found that article moving, then you may wish to learn about the concept of restorative climate justice, and to tell others about it!
Update 2 (afternoon, 4 April 2020): the fundamental issue is the way the debate is framed!
Since posting the previous update, there has been a storm of commentary on Twitter. In fairness to those who support SPO, I am posting many of their tweets below. I am happy to acknowledge that the issue is not totally clear.
A few specific comments, however:
- I am pleased that Orangutan Land Trust rejected funding from one of their donors on ethical grounds. That is certainly encouraging.
- David Attenborough is not necessarily the font of all wisdom. (I take issue, for example, with his apparent belief that human population is in itself a major problem.)
- Repeating the statement that a palm oil boycott could increase deforestation doesn’t add anything to the debate – I already covered that. The answer is surely to reform the whole agro-industrial system, not to tinker round the edges of this demonstrably catastrophic monstrosity?
- Yes, sadly, many organisations which have spent years working on this issue, could be wrong. I repeat: the answer is surely to reform the whole agro-industrial system, not to tinker round the edges of this demonstrably catastrophic monstrosity? Large corporations are heavily invested in the present global capitalist system, not necessarily the most agile and innovative of entities, and certainly not immune to groupthink.
In conclusion, I reject the very way the debate is framed: ‘sustainable’ palm oil or non-sustainable palm oil (or something equally bad or worse), in a fundamentally unreformed globalised agroindustrial monoculture- and commodity-based food system dominated by large corporations, which have no compunction in wielding their economic power to maintain the status quo.
Update 1 (morning, 4 April 2020)
My views disputed
Since posting the original article below, I have exchanged views with several people/organisations who strongly dispute my contention that there is no such thing as sustainable palm oil, such as the Orangutan Land Trust, and I have been referred to:
- this article by Dr Eleanor Slade: ‘Palm oil boycott could actually increase deforestation – sustainable products are the solution’
- this webpage on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and the Palm Oil Innovation Group: ‘RSPO AND POIG. What is POIG’s relevance pursuant to the adoption of the 2018 RSPO P&C?’
- I have also been told that Greenpeace has changed its views (supported by this article).
One can certainly understand people’s reasons for wishing to believe that there is such a thing as truly sustainable palm oil – it would wonderful for the biosphere, for one thing – and I have no doubt there are many good people involved and that some, or even most, of the work they do is irreproachable and praiseworthy. However, there are also reasons for scepticism when examining the views/organisations mentioned above.
Orangutan Land Trust has good reason not to examine gift horse’s mouth?
With regard to the Orangutan Land Trust, one can see immediately that most of their ‘Corporate Sustainability Partners’ (arguably an Orwellian title for those who pay them for greenwashing services?) are corporations with significant financial interests in ‘sustainable’ palm oil. This means that the undoubtedly good people of the Orangutan Land Trust also have a very good incentive to believe that ‘sustainable’ palm oil is a real thing, and not to look the gift horse in the mouth too closely. This would simply be human nature: their consciences would sanction such blindness for the (undisputed) good of their main cause.
Dr Eleanor Slade: agroindustrial commodity monocultures the only alternative?
Let’s give Dr Slade the benefit of the doubt and assume that all her work and the institutions with which she is associated are free of funding from those with vested interests in SPO, and that she is therefore motivated only by the truth.
Her main argument boils down to TINA: There Is No sustainable Alternative to Sustainable Palm Oil. In other words, if palm oil consumption as a whole is reduced, any substitute could have a far worse impact on the biosphere.
Firstly, this is hypothetical: she is not stating that it definitely would happen. Secondly, it is an extremely pessimistic and narrow prediction, all the more surprising as she points to one of the potential major contributors to a solution in her own article:
‘Indeed, soybean farming is already responsible for more than double the deforestation of palm oil. In the context of other food sources, livestock and beef production has led to more than five times the amount of deforestation, compared to palm oil.’
I agree. We need massive reform of the whole commodity, monoculture-based, agroindustrial food system, an element of which must be that we stop growing crops like soya (UK word for ‘soy’) just to feed to livestock. We need to greatly reduce our consumption of meat. We need to move towards far more productive methodologies with far lower inputs, such as permaculture, agroecology and conservation agriculture. We need to cut large corporations out of the food system, research and revive indigenous peoples’ knowledge and practices, and foster urban growing. (Anyone who doubts the need for changes such as these could start by reading this.)
Is this feasible? I would argue that this is the real TINA, and that the massive global mobilisation in response to COVID-19 demonstrates that it is, indeed. Stop chatting about tampering at the edges of our hugely destructive food system. Call for it to be radically overhauled!
Footnote on Dr Slade’s article
Dr Slade also states: ‘Despite this, many large retailers and leading brands (including Nestlé, Unilever and Palmolive) and supermarkets (such as Morrison’s, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s in the UK) are already using certified palm oil in their products, but cannot heavily promote this due to the persistent negativity toward any type of palm oil.’
What hard evidence does she/they have for this? The ingredients are listed on products’ labels. I suspect that most consumers still don’t know or care, alas.
…And why do many products contain palm oil, when they can be made perfectly well with no oil at all (e.g. bread)?
Palm Oil Innovation Group: alleged massive flouter of indigenous peoples’ rights has major involvement; right-wing promoter of neoliberalism backs another
With regard to the Palm Oil Innovation Group, what jumps out immediately is the involvement of WWF, a supposed conservation organisation notorious for consorting with Monsanto (now part of Bayer). This Guardian article mentions their effective greenwashing of Monsanto and others, and states explicitly:
‘Huismann argues that by setting up “round tables” of industrialists on strategic commodities such as palm oil, timber, sugar, soy, biofuels and cocoa, WWF International has become a political power that is too close to industry and in danger of becoming reliant on corporate money.
‘”WWF is a willing service provider to the giants of the food and energy sectors, supplying industry with a green, progressive image … On the one hand it protects the forest; on the other it helps corporations lay claim to land not previously in their grasp. WWF helps sell the idea of voluntary resettlement to indigenous peoples,” says Huismann.’
For more information on WWF allegedly flouting the rights of indigenous peoples and committing other horrific acts scroll down this page.
One might be encouraged to see the Forest Peoples Programme as a POIG partner (cuddly name, right?). However, their sponsors include the right-wing Ford Foundation, notorious for its funding of the expansion of neoliberal ideology, which is surely the major issue at the root of agroindustry’s destruction of the biosphere? I would be far more reassured to see Survival International at the table (the vast majority of its funding comes from small individual donors in over a hundred countries).
Greenpeace? Hardly a ringing endorsement!
Reading what’s on the Greenpeace website now, and viewing the video on it, it comes across to me as a desperate attempt to raise awareness of the serious harm wreaked by the palm oil business and encourage people to boycott the palm oil that is clearly not sustainable in order to force big companies to change.
Reading between the lines, a reluctant Greenpeace has been persuaded to support SPO as the only credible alternative, but Greenpeace is merely hopeful that it is/will be so, and is doing its best to make it so. (I trust/hope Greenpeace is not receiving any funding from those with vested interests in palm oil.)
It is interesting that the Greenpeace webpage I linked below (‘Sustainable Palm Oil? No, not really!’) is extant. Perhaps not everyone in Greenpeace supports SPO, even now?
Original Blog Article: There’s no such thing as sustainable palm oil. Cut it out of your diet, yes, but there’s more to be done.
There’s no such thing as sustainable palm oil. The palm oil industry is a major contributor to the destruction of rainforests, biodiversity loss and the climate catastrophe. This is a point made in Werner Boote’s powerful film, The Green Lie. (Here’s information on the film on his own website.)
- No such thing as sustainable palm oil – ‘certified’ can destroy even more wildlife, say scientists (Independent, 2018)
- There is no such a Thing as Sustainable Palm Oil (Environmental Ideas website, 2018)
- ‘For years we have insisted that all our 300+ own label suppliers use RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil in our products, but the evidence clearly shows that this has not stopped deforestation. Indeed, we are convinced that it is currently impossible to source palm oil for the mass market that does not risk further rainforest destruction.‘ (Iceland website, 2018)
- Sustainable Palm Oil? No, not really! (Greenpeace, 2013)
And yet palm oil is in most processed foods and a variety of other products, but you have to read the small print in order to discover this. By all means do so, and avoid palm oil consumption as far as you can, but given that it is used so widely (it’s not easy finding palm oil-free biscuits and even bread in many UK supermarkets) I think we should do more. Here are some ideas:
- petition/campaign for national government to tax/phase out palm oil (theoretically leaving the EU could open the way for stricter UK environmental policies, though a trade deal with the USA is likely to move the country in the opposite direction)
- petition/campaign for national/local government to use public procurement to reduce the use of palm oil (see remark above re Brexit)
- petition/campaign for national/local government to insist on much clearer labelling of products containing palm oil
- petition/campaign for supermarkets to avoid palm oil and/or label palm oil-containing products more clearly (the Iceland chain is a leader in this regard)
Should we implement some or all of these, or do you have other suggestions?
Finally, expect a vigorous response from the advocates of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, but take what they say with a pinch of salt – they have vast sums of money riding on this. See the Independent article mentioned above!