Palm oil is everywhere – from cooking oil to soap to vegan margarine. Equatorial rainforest and peatland are cleared and replaced with serried ranks of oil palm trees (Elaeis guineensis). The biodiversity of Borneo and Sumatra, including the iconic Orang Utan, is threatened by habitat loss.
Some vegan activists say no product that causes so much destruction can be considered vegan. But is palm oil really worse than the alternatives? And can poor countries like Malaysia and Indonesia develop without it?
Environmentalist Catherine Laurence helps me disentangle the thicket of issues.
Hear academic experts Eric Lambin and Robert Greenland; vegan baker Ms Cupcake; primatologist Georgina Ash; vegan MP Kerry McCarthy; the boss of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil; and vegan Indonesian palm oil activist and Miskin Porno lead singer Daniek Hendarto.
There is more about Catherine in her blog post, “Being part of the solution“.
- Follow @calaurence on Twitter
Georgina Ash is a primatologist who has worked and volunteered with Orangutans. She is now the picture editor for the World Society for the Protection of Animals in London, UK, where I spoke with her.
Daniek (pronounced “Danny”) works for Indonesian NGO the Centre for Orangutan Protection: he helps advise Zoos on care, resettling Orangutans from threatened areas, and campaigning against the impact of palm oil. Daniek is vegan, and also the lead singer of punk rock band “Miskin Porno”, which (content warning) sings sweary rants against palm oil:
- Listen to Miskin Porno at ReverbNation.com
Prof Eric Lambin
Dr Lambin is a Professor of Geography at Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium and at Stanford University, California. He specialises in land use change. Because of his work, he has received the Prix Franqui, and been elected to the US National Academy of Sciences. He is a meat reducer, for environmental reasons.
- Eric Lambin at Standford University, California USA
- Eric Lambin at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, California USA
- Eric Lambin’s research activities, Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium (PDF)
Dr Robert Goodland
Dr Goodland is a tropical ecologist. He went from an academic career to being an environmental advisor at the World Bank, and from there to being an environmental campaigner, consultant, and writer. He is vegan. Dr Goodland blogged at WorldBank.org about the research he did with Dr Anhang that concluded that livestock are responsible for 51% of Greenhouse Gas Emissions. He also wrote a column for The Guardian criticising the World Bank’s environmental impact in 2007. He received the Coolidge Memorial Medial from the International Union for Nature Conservation in 2008.
Darrel Webber left a career in business to join the World Wildlife Fund, where he liaised with palm oil companies to build wildlife corridors into their plans. He is omnivorous – his interest in conservation is led partially by his fishing. He joined the RSPO from WWF. As Director General of the RSPO, he has taken part in:
- A Google hangout with other palm oil activists and stakeholders (1 hr)
- Business podcast “The Breakfast Grill” (“The Green Side of Palm Oil”)
Melissa Morgan (“Ms Cupcake”)
Ms Cupcake is a vegan baker and media personality, the author of “The Naughtiest Vegan Cakes in Town” cookbook, and winner of the British Baker 2011 “Rising Star” award. Her bakery is in the gentrifying south London suburb of Brixton.
Kerry McCarthy MP
You can read reports from US-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (2005, PDF), the United Nations Environment Programme (2011, pdf), and campaigns from the Rainforest Action Network and the UK magazine Ethical Consumer. But you should definitely read Catherine’s blog post about what she thinks the solutions are, now the episode is done. As a commodity, we used statistics from the US Department of Agriculture.
The Three Oil Palm Fruit Products
The Oil Palm yields fruit; the fruit has both flesh and kernel; and both of those produce meal as well as oil. In the show, we talked mainly about the fruit oil (which is four-fifths of the economic value). Here is my working for how the economic yield breaks down (showing that it’s mostly the fruit oil). According to the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, each hectare produces:
- Oil: 4t at $750/t = $3000 = 80%
- Kernel oil: 500kg at $840/t = $420 = 16%
- Kernel cake/meal: 600kg at $250/t = $150 = 4%
- Total = $3750
The oils are used mainly for food, but are also used in biofuel and other non-food products. The kernel meal is mainly used as animal feed, but is sometimes also used locally as biofuel.
The Oil as an Ingredient
The saturated fat molecules in palm oil have a kink that makes it easy for the molecules to stack into a solid. For this reason, palm oil is a source of fats that are solid at room temperature, making “ambient products” possible. This is an issue for anyone avoiding fat, as well as for bakers.
Orangutans and Habitat Loss
The Orangutans (Indonesian: forest man) are the only species of great ape restricted to Asia. The Sumatran Orangutan is critically endangered; the Bornean Orangutan is endangered. (The other great apes are Chimpanzee, Bonobo, Eastern/Western Gorillas, and – lest we forget – Human). See also:
- “Orangutan Island” (Video, Discovery Channel)
with just 1 percent of the Earth’s land area, Indonesia’s rainforests contain 10% of the world’s known plants, 12% of mammals and 17% of all known bird species – Rainforest Action Network
Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil
The RSPO includes a wide range of producers, traders, and consumers of palm oil as well as NGOs. It marks palm oil that is traceable to source and produced in line with its principles and rules as CSPO (Certified Sustainable Palm Oil)
- The RSPO website provides information on consumption, production and purchase of CSPO
- Rainforest Action Network summed up the case against CSPO in a series of blog posts; and reported on breaches of local regulations and RSPO rules by Cargill (PDF)
- I mentioned the complaint against IOI; or see this letter to the press from one of the complainants (hat tip COP).
The RSPO revised the specifics of some of its rules in 2013: I mentioned that WWF was so disappointed with this revision that they want to set up a new, stricter, certificate within the RSPO (PDF).
Catherine includes more information about Green Palm and CSPO on her blog post about what consumers can do.
Makers of Vegan Margarines
Kerry Foods make “Pure”, the UK’s leading brand of vegan margarine. They are RSPO members (membership page). Their Annual Communication of Progress for 2010-11 said only 2% of their palm oil was CSPO. My comparison with 10% of Palm Oil production being CSPO was based on these RSPO figures for CSPO production. Kerry failed to file an ACOP in 2011-12, as shown by their absence from this list. The RSPO process does at least make it obvious when someone does not even fill in the paperwork.
Earth Balance are produced by Boulder Brands. They are not RSPO members, and have a web page about their palm oil sourcing.
… go to Robb Masters and Miskin Porno for the music. The title of the Miskin Porno song used in the show, translated and bowdlerised, is “F___ palm oil”. The illustration pic of Indonesian deforestation is by Vincent Poulissen, used with permission; the sound clip pic is of Orangutan is Kani from Melbourne Zoo by Macinate (and yes, I did try to find a pic of a freeliving Orangutan) used under CC-BY.