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What’s the issue?

An article setting out the factors that contribute to the controversy.
© EIT Food

Over the past two decades, global growth in palm oil production has been rapid and in direct response to ever-increasing demand for palm oil in both the food and energy sectors, and in industrial applications.1

This has numerous implications for its cultivation and onward use, particularly as its expansion has displaced other crops, including food crops, in some of the world’s poorest areas. Although this does differ by region,1 it has also led to increased greenhouse gas emissions via deforestation as native forests are chopped down and through peatland swamps being converted to plantations, releasing methane and carbon dioxide in the process. It has negatively impacted biodiversity by placing wildlife habitats at risk, with the orangutan of South East Asia (now confined to Borneo and Sumatra) commonly invoked as the species most threatened with extinction by the spread of oil palm plantations. And almost inevitably, the dramatic surge in the production of oil palm has also been associated with land confiscations and human rights violations in several countries and regions.

Image by e-smile from Pixabay Source

Despite all these costs, the global economy’s dependence on (some say addiction to) palm oil has only grown stronger. Production is expected to quadruple again by 2050, to reach a staggering 240 million tonnes. It is estimated that around three billion people in 150 countries now regularly use products containing palm oil. In fact, globally, we each consume an average of 8kg of palm oil every year.

Critics wonder what should be done to limit the negative consequences of our dependence on palm oil, while proponents of palm oil production point to the far greater negative impacts that any substitute crops would very likely have.

So, what are the headline issues?

Well, the data couldn’t be clearer. The World Resource Institute (WRI) provides the global picture:

Commodity Deforestation (2001-2015. MHA) Deforestation (MHA/Year)
Cattle 45.1 3.0
Oil palm 10.5 (of which 6.2 was direct)a 3.0
Soy 8.2 (of which 3.9 was direct) 0.5
Cocoa 2.3 0.2
Plantation rubberb 2.1 0.1
Coffee 1.9 0.1
Plantation wood fiberc 1.8 0.1
Total 71.9 4.8
Notes: a) Deforestation is considered direct when the commodity was established within four years (for oil palm) or three years (for soy) of the deforestation event. b) Rubber data are available for Brazil, Cambodia, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Indonesia and Malaysia. c) Wood fibre data are available for Argentina, Brazil, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Rwanda, South Korea and Vietnam. Mha stands for million hectares. Totals may not sum due to rounding.
Table 1: Total forest area replaced by analyzed commodities, 2001-2015. Source: World Resources Institute

By far the biggest global cause of deforestation is pasture for grazing cattle, predominantly in the Amazon region of Brazil and neighbouring countries. Second is palm oil production, though its effect is far less significant estimated to drive little more than one tenth of the deforestation caused by cattle. Soy and cocoa are next on the list.2

However, perhaps precisely because of its recent rapid expansion in terms of production and its astonishing ubiquity in so many products, palm oil has garnered a great deal of negative attention. The environmental NGO (non-governmental organisation) community, in particular, has lobbied hard to have palm oil put on a more environmentally and socially sustainable footing. Doug Boucher, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, says in his blog, that while 59% of the companies active in the palm oil sector have made pledges to do what they can to decrease deforestation, only 12% of the companies in the cattle sector have done the same.

This is, palm oil producers argue, a form of hypocrisy on the part of the Western-based, neo-colonial NGOs and governments, who stand accused of double standards in not confronting Brazilian beef producers more directly, given their overwhelming contribution to increases in carbon emissions and thus global warming via deforestation.

To combat global deforestation, recent global initiatives are targeting multiple commodities, including beef. Leading the charge is the European Union Deforestation Regulation (EUDR). As of May 2023, the EUDR introduced a mandatory requirement – the performance of a due diligence – to ensure that imports into the EU are deforestation free. This applies to seven key commodities: beef, palm oil, soy, cocoa, coffee, and rubber.

Palm oil traders targeting the EU market must comply with this rule. Certification bodies like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) will be crucial for providing compliance. Importantly, the cut-off date for this requirement was December 31, 2020; commodities must not be sourced from deforested area after this date. You can read more about the EU regulation although an easier version to digest is the RSPO report on the EUDR.

Activity

Now that you’ve read about the complex factors underlying this controversy, complete this sentence: ‘Palm oil is controversial because…’ and paste it into the comments section below. You may also want to include the priority you place on each factor. Why not use the ‘reply’ button to comment on what other Learners have said, remembering to remain respectful of others’ opinions. There is a wide range of valid perspectives in this debate. You can also agree with what others have said by ‘liking’ their comments.

References

1) Wiebe, Keith D.; Sulser, Timothy; Pacheco, Pablo; De Pinto, Alessandro; Mason d’Croz, Daniel; Dermawan, Ahmad; Thomas, Timothy S.; Li, Man; Robinson, Sherman; and Dunston, Shahnila. 2019. The palm oil dilemma: Policy tensions among higher productivity, rising demand, and deforestation. IFPRI Policy Brief. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Availble from: https://doi.org/10.2499/9780896296879

2) Streck C, Haupt F, Roe S, Behm K, Kroeger A, Schulte I, et al. Please use the following citation: Climate Focus. 2016. Progress on the New York Declaration on Forests: Eliminating Deforestation from the Production of Agricultural Commodities -Goal 2 Assessment Report. Prepared by Climate Focus in cooperation with the NYDF Assessment Coalition with support from the Climate and Land Use Alliance and the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 [Internet]. [cited 2023 Dec 12]. Available from: https://www.forest-trends.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/2016-NYDF-Goal-2-Assessment-Report.pdf

© EIT Food
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Engaging with Controversies in the Food System: Palm Oil

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