Palm oil is the villain of Western markets. It appears as an ingredient in all sorts of processed foods, but comes with a bad reputation – environmentally unfriendly at best. Buying only products that don’t include it is nearly impossible, though a growing number of manufacturers are now tapping into a demand for such items. This packaged dinner from Norway, for example, advertises itself as helt uten palmeolje – entirely free of palm oil.
In the past few years I became increasingly aware of this tension, and began trying to make my own small dietary changes away from palm oil. But I was more following a trend than making choices based on facts, and the realities of oil palm agriculture remained far from my personal experience. That changed this year in Malaysian Borneo, where I have been studying the functional consequences of forest degradation. One of the major causes of forest destruction is replacement by oil palm plantations, and I got the chance to see exactly where our packaged cookies and instant noodles and laundry detergent come from.
Heading into the forest for work each day, I saw whole river basins and mountainsides exposed bare, covered by myriad rows of identical oil palm trees. I saw rigor and pattern imposed on the forest through the bulldozing of long roads and terraces, and imagined the silent hands of the many workers responsible for planting and trimming and fertilizing and harvesting.
The reason for all this effort is the large and heavy bunches of bright-red fruits the tree often produces. These are cut down by hand, then trucked out of the plantation.
Each fruit’s flesh hides a single inner seed, white and oily.
The seeds are then crushed, heated, and leached in an unpleasant-smelling process taking place in refinery facilities (this photo from Costa Rica).
The crude oil is finally sent off in trucks for further refinement or transformation into the products we are so familiar with. It is a long journey from tropical hillside to convenience store display.
My visceral reaction to this production scheme was dismay over the large-scale disturbance it created. I haven’t changed my mind about this, but the controversy over this crop is more nuanced than its bad reputation would suggest.
In Malaysia, palm oil provides about a half million people with jobs, and annual revenue of more than 16 billion dollars, mostly through exports to China and Pakistan. And about 35 percent of growers are smallholders rather than large companies. Many of the people I got to know had relatives who worked in the industry and were very glad for its existence.
And the crop itself is highly efficient – its yield per hectare is far higher than other oil crops like in this British rapeseed field, and is achieved for much lower fertilizer and pesticide application rates as well.
On the other hand, the crop tends to be planted on land that is directly converted from primary forests with immense value in terms of biodiversity and ecosystem services. More palm oil almost always means more deforestation. These landscapes are often cleared by burning, a process that remains one of the largest contemporary sources of carbon pollution. The heavy smoke-filled air I experienced for days on end in the forest was a direct consequence of land clearance in neighboring Indonesia.
Oil palm plantations, once established, are also often responsible for high nutrient runoff from careless fertilizer application, and for high soil erosion from road construction. Labor on these plantations is sometimes forced.
The crop has major well-recognized problems. But it is not going away. The economic incentives are too great. A crop of oil palm can return anywhere from 4000 to 29000 USD per hectare over a 25 year period, compared to about 10000 USD per hectare for two-rotation logging over the same interval (Fisher et al. 2011). To compare, a cashier job in a big city might pay about 250 USD per month. Mountainsides of oil palm are mountainsides of money.
One option for preventing this land use would be REDD+ programs that provide payments for the carbon storage benefit of not destroying forests. The problem is that a market for carbon doesn’t fully exist yet, and prices are far too low to make this feasible. Current governments are willing to support prices of somewhere around 15 USD per ton of carbon stored, but the yield of oil palm relative to the forest it destroys would require the market to sustain a price of around 50 USD per ton of carbon (Fisher et al. 2011, again). Finding any buyers at this price is highly unlikely in the near future. Put a different way, the opportunity cost of conservation is somewhere around 20000 USD per hectare – and a hectare is not a very large area – only about the size of a single football field.
The alternative solution is to find ways to make oil palm agriculture more sustainable. Efforts like reductions of wasteful fertilizer application and establishment only on land of limited conservation value are a start. This enterprise, Benta Wawasan Sendirian Berhad, located near where I work, is now part of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and has self-reported some tentative steps towards these goals. But nearly all the oil palm produced today is still far from any reasonable sustainability standards. Consumer labeling schemes to differentiate different production methods are still in their infancy, and industry definitions of sustainability leave (in my opinion) much to be desired.
Spending long days in the field with endless rows of oil palm on the horizon, it was hard not to think often about the complex issues the crop raises. I still try to avoid buying anything with palm oil as an ingredient – but I now understand much better the biodiversity and land and money and jobs that come into play every time I make that small decision. It is a start.