Palm Oil: with Catherine Laurence, Eric Lambin, Orangutan rescuer Daniek Hendarto, RSPO SG Darrel Webber

Listen to Radio Show (pic of cleared forest; a truck drives away along a dirt road)

Palm Oil

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.

[soundcloud url=”″ params=”show_comments=true&color=155C06&theme_color=BED3BA”  width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /] Play or download (38.3MB MP3) (via iTunes)

Catherine Laurence

There is more about Catherine in her blog post, “Being part of the solution“.


Georgina Ash

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 Hendarto

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:

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.

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 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

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:

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 hear the Member of the UK Parliament for Bristol East and her two parliamentary colleagues in the shows about vegan politicians.  There is more about her on the page for the first politics show.

Oil Palm

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:

The Orangutans are a symbol, but not the only threatened species; the Sumatran Rhino is thought to number fewer than four hundred;  and the Sumatran tiger is also critically endangered:

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 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

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

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.

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About Ian

London. Formerly known as New Media. Vegan since 1992.

9 responses to “Palm Oil: with Catherine Laurence, Eric Lambin, Orangutan rescuer Daniek Hendarto, RSPO SG Darrel Webber”

  1. Brian Jacobs says :

    Hi Ian Are Eric Lambin and Robert Greenland speaking in favour of cutting and burning down the rainforest, so we are fully informed from both sides, which is what you asked regarding the fluoride talk at London Vegans?


    [Admin edit: website name changed to poster name, lengthy .sig stripped]

  2. Ian McDonald says :

    You can read more about how The Vegan Option tries to follow journalistic ethics of objectivity and due impartiality in our “about” pages.

    That qualification “due” includes taking it for granted that animals exist for their own reasons as well as the assumptions we share with mainstream media (democracy is good; slavery is bad). We’re not impartial about those.

    If animals exist for their own reasons, then it follows that the destruction of their habitat is a bad thing. So “due impartiality” does not imply complete impartiality about “cutting and burning down the rainforest”.

    Nevertheless, Darrel Webber does make the case for developing countries being able to use their rainforest; and during production I specifically sought out the views of the vegetarian movement in Indonesia and Malaysia, who might have been expected to support a degree of forest clearance for one of their major industries.

    So although I’m not sure if a 30 minute show can “fully inform” anyone, I think we treated the question with due impartiality, reflecting a range of views.

    I hope that once you’ve listened to the show, you’ll agree.

  3. Tanya&Dawn (@ProgressKitch) says :

    Just listened to this episode, and enjoyed it greatly!

    Learned that yes, apparently there is technically such a thing as sustainable palm oil, but no I don’t see any reason to alter my ‘avoid palm oil’ habit one little bit… there’s way too little accountability, and the sustainable sources will never be able to meet existing corporate demand (imo) — but I did like the episode’s closing thoughts: ONLY thoughtful-consumer boycotts won’t make enough of a dent in the problem. and we need to keep pushing for better standards sustainable certification ALSO… Excellent point.

    Thanks for another great episode! Glad to see this issue entering mainstream awareness, or at least broader awareness among the vegan community. And thanks for giving PK a voice in the discussion — we appreciate it!

    Keep up the very excellent work; can’t wait to see what issue you tackle next. 🙂


  4. Imogen Michel says :

    Hi Ian,

    Thanks for a great and very well-balanced episode! It’s a really interesting subject which raises a lot of competing ethical questions.

    Also, it was great to meet you in Edinburgh earlier this summer, and hopefully see you at VegFestUK London in October 🙂

    Looking forward to the next one,


  5. Mindy Sjogren says :

    I’ve helped care for orphaned orangutans in Borneo and drove through the palm oil plantations for hours and hours….anyone who has seen it knows. It’s terribly destructive. The biodiversity we are losing over a cheap vegetable oil is shocking. If humans valued natural resources before money, this one is a no brainer.

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