Notes on: Palm Oil

What do you think of Palm Oil?

It’s a cheap vegetable oil, from the fruit of a tree that grows at the equator. Demand is now the main driver of deforestation, with massive impact on wildlife.

Some say that palm oil shouldn’t be seen as vegan. So Catherine Laurence (environmentalist and guest co-host) and I are making an episode of The Vegan Option about it.

We’ve talked to expert ecologists, a vegan baker, a primatologist who has seen the impact first hand, and are looking forward to a couple more interviews before we wrap the show.

I wanted to share some of what we’ve come across in research, so that listeners who already know the issues get a chance to comment before we record. These notes from my desk (well, my laptop) includes a promise about “certified sustainable palm oil” from the boss of the certifying organisation, and an attempt to make sense of the question of whether it’s vegan.

What the RSPO say

Last week I interviewed Darrell Webber, the secretary general of the “Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil” – a certifying body that includes corporations from the various sides of the palm oil industry as well as NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund. I wanted to pick out a couple of things he said for your comment. He implied that palm oil did a much better job of lifting suppliers out of poverty:

There are no poor smallholders in the Palm Oil industry. Whereas in the cocoa, coffee, cotton, whatever commodity, there is always poor smallholders. And the reason there are no poor smallholders in the palm oil sector is that the yields are so high.

What do you think?

Core to the show, I asked him: “Can listeners trust, if they manage to get hold of some certified sustainable palm oil, can they actually trust  that it’s not built on land where primary rainforest stood.”


The system forbids clearance of primary forest.

You can read the new RSPO rules, that will come into force next year, online [PDF]. As now, they only protect primary forest that was standing in November 2005 counts – and I’ve asked the RPSO for clarification.

But I wanted to put that out there before the show in case any listeners – or, indeed, campaigners – had anything to say about that.

Is it vegan?

Here in the UK, the Vegan Society AGM voted down a motion to deny the vegan mark to products containing palm oil. The Northeast Vegan festival, on the other hand, bans palm oil. And we talked to ecologist Robert Goodland, who does not see palm oil as vegan either.

But how do you put it in context? How does it compare to something that the whole movement agrees is not vegan?

So I did a very very approximate calculation. Let’s look at impact per calorie. Let’s imagine an average adult getting roughly a tenth of their calories from a single source – 80,000kcal.  This isn’t realistic, and the foods are very different, but I’m simply trying to put palm oil in context.

Oil palm yields roughly 25t/ha per year. A Ha is 10,000 square metres, so that’s 2.5kg per square metre. All oils are 9cal per gram, so that gives us 22,500kcal per square metre. We can each get a lot of palm oil – probably more than we need – from clearing 3-4 square metres, and all the biodiversity therein. There is very very roughly one Orang Utan per Hectare, so you would be displacing a few hundredths of one percent of one Orang Utan to keep you in palm oil year on year – as well as all the animals, from the iconic to the invertebrate, that were in (or relied on) those 3-4 square metres.

A dairy cow, on the other hand, will make about 10t of milk in one of her adult years, which, at 640 kcal/l, and assuming milk is as dense as water, is 6,400,000kcal. Enough to supply 80 people with that amount of milk. So you’d be responsible for 1.25% percent of her suffering. (Just in case someone is reading it who isn’t familiar with farming practices: she’d be made pregnant as soon as possible so she continued to produce milk for the children she’d then lose early; she’ll be killed worn out after a few years instead of her natural lifespan of over twenty; and half of her children will be boys who go to slaughter or veal production.)

So the suffering caused by the milk is orders of magnitude greater. And, more importantly, it continues indefinitely. Habitat loss only happens once.

I could just have easily picked another animal who suffers much more per calorie – chickens, for example. The difference then would have been even starker.

Of course, the calculations are a very simplified comparison between Orang Utan suffering and the suffering of dairy cows, to help us think about the comparative impacts of palm oil and dairy from an animal perspective and whether it would quality as vegan or not. Catherine and I have been delving into these issues for our research, and recognise the complexities.

One point Catherine made is that dairy also has severe impacts on environment and conservation, due to cultivation of soya for animal feed in converted South American rainforest.  Many creatures are killed when farmers plough crops, and the best way to minimise this is to eat the crops directly rather than feeding them to other animals used for food.

So – do you think palm oil is vegan? And if not, what other drivers of habitat loss aren’t vegan? Where does the line go?

As I said at the start: what do you think of palm oil?

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Avatar for Ian McD

About Ian McD

I'm a British new media person with a passion for radio, and interested in the kind of stories best told when we see humans as part of the world of animal minds. I blogged about why I'm producing The Vegan Option.

3 responses to “Notes on: Palm Oil”

  1. Avatar for Ian McD
    Tanya&Dawn (@ProgressKitch) says :

    I am really looking forward to this episode! … so far, here’s my take on it: I don’t dis palm oil to newbs. On balance, I feel like if that’s what it takes to convince you to ditch dairy, do it! Buy the Earth Balance (or whatever), and let’s revisit the issue later (once you’re happily navigating the world as a vegan creature). BUT THEN — let’s talk! Because like meat or dairy or high fructose corn syrup, it seems to cause problems and we have no nutritional need for it… I make some really easy vegan butter that I like as well as EB, and cutting palm oil automatically cuts processed food that I don’t need to eat anyway — I don’t think it’s technically ‘not vegan,’ but it seems to do a lot of harm in the world; and I don’t need it… so I don’t eat it.

    Some time ago I wrote this article, and it still sums up my approach to the palm oil issue: … but I’m open. My opinion is certainly subject to (evidence based) change; but so far, I see no reason to support the palm oil industry and many reasons not to do so…

    So I’ll be listening eagerly to this episode, and thank you for organizing my improved access to expanded information on this topic! 🙂

    Oh, also, if anyone wants the easy vegan butter recipe:

    Thanks, & I look forward to listening!

  2. Avatar for Ian McD
    Tanya&Dawn (@ProgressKitch) says :

    Oh, also, I forgot to say: I think ‘dairy vs palm oil’ is a red herring — we don’t need either! So I don’t care which does relatively more or less harm… yes, I agree dairy probably does more harm than palm oil, overall; but… so what?! why would that mean I’d want to eat palm oil? It’s not an either/ or situation, since we don’t need to consume either one.

    Any cheap monocropped thing probably deserves suspicion, in terms of environmental degradation and crap-food ingredient-ness, imo, and if I don’t need it + it does significant harm + it’s easy to avoid… I’ll prolly pass.

    Ok, thanks, that’s all I’ve got!*

    *(for now) 😉

  3. Avatar for Ian McD
    Colin Wright says :

    I published a guest post on my blog about this issue that sums up my feelings on the subject quite well:

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