Palm oil from Ghana
Natasha Gilbert wrote in Nature: Palm oil was once touted as a social and environmental panacea — a sustainable food crop, a biofuel that could help to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and a route out of poverty for small-scale farmers. In recent years, however, a growing body of research has questioned those credentials, presenting evidence that palm-oil farming can cause damaging deforestation and reduce biodiversity, and that the oil’s use as a biofuel offers only marginal benefits for mitigating climate change. [Source: Natasha Gilbert, Nature, July 4, 2012]

Human rights abuses such as child labor and forced evictions are also connected with the palm oil trade. On the Indonesian island of Sumatra, palm oil companies have bulldozed entire indigenous villages, leaving their residents homeless and reliant on government handouts. Jason Motlagh wrote in the Washington Post, “The huge global appetite is yielding billions in revenue for Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s first- and second-largest producers of palm oil. But environmental and human rights activists warn that the boom is accelerating the effects of global warming, with no concern for long-term social costs. They add that indigenous people are being pushed off their ancestral land to make way for plantations staffed by tens of thousands of migrant workers, who are often denied health care and education services. Many families that have labored for decades still do not have the legal documents that would grant them and their children basic rights. [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, November 26, 2012]

The New York Times reported in June 2010, “ Biofuel goals meant to fight climate change are worsening the problem by giving growers an even greater incentive to destroy virgin forests and peatlands that serve as huge carbon sinks, environment advocates say. The forests provide livelihoods to indigenous people and are the only home to endangered species like the orangutan and the Sumatran tiger. [Source: New York Times, June 3, 2010]

Palm Oil, Deforestation and Climate Change

Much of the world’s palm oil is produced on land formally occupied by rainforest in Indonesia and Malaysia. Much of the destruction is in Indonesia, where the United Nations Environment Program warned in 2007 that 98 percent of the forests in Sumatra and Borneo could be gone by 2022. In neighboring Malaysia, which is also a major palm oil producer, much of the low-lying forest has already vanished.

Environmentalists complain that clearing trees for palm oil plantations threatens the rain forest and animals like elephants, orangutans and tigers. Only 14 percent of palm oil produced is sustainable, Choice spokesman Tom Godfrey says, resulting in deforestation and catastrophic environmental damage. Palm oil production has been linked to the destruction of orangutan habitats. People in the palm industry argue that only a few errant growers cause environmental damage.

Ben Webster wrote in The Times, “ “Deforestation, mainly in the tropics, accounts for almost 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The expansion of the palm oil industry in Indonesia has turned the country into the third-largest CO2 emitter, after China and the US. Indonesia has the fastest rate of deforestation, losing an area the size of Wales every year. The expansion of plantations has pushed the orangutan to the brink of extinction in Sumatra. * [Source: Ben Webster, The Times, August 15, 2009 **]

According to the New York Times: Much of the forest now being cleared for palm oil is peatland, with marshy soils that are crucial holders of methane, a greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide. Environmentalists argue that abandoned grasslands could be used for palm cultivation, but the industry’s hunger for enormous plantations to create economies of scale, and its close links with timber extraction, create relentless pressure for forest clearance, Mr. Kaat told the New York Times. Logging companies, often affiliated with palm oil companies, generally begin by removing valuable hardwood trees, and then drain swamps and burn vegetation, releasing enormous volumes of greenhouse gases, he said. [Source: New York Times, June 3, 2010]

Environmental Impact of Palm Oil on Borneo

As recently as the 1970s, three-quarters of Borneo was covered in lush rain forests but Borneo’s role in meeting the demand for palm oil has taken a huge toll.. Hillary Rosner wrote in National Geographic:“ Since 1973, nearly 16,000 square miles of rain forest on Borneo, the island shared by Malaysia and Indonesia, have been logged, burned, and bulldozed to make way for oil palm. It accounts for a fifth of the total deforestation on Borneo since 1973 — and for 47 percent since 2000. [Source: Hillary Rosner, National Geographic, December 2018]

“Industrial oil palm plantations have caused 47 percent of the deforestation on the island since 2000. Some 877,000 acres are currently lost each year. Over 32,000 square miles, an area about the size of South Carolina, have been planted with oil palms.

All that deforestation has been devastating for wildlife. Nearly 150,000 critically endangered Bornean orangutans perished from 1999 to 2015, and although the main culprits were logging and hunting, palm oil was a major factor. It also exacerbates climate change — nearly half of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation and other land-use changes — as well as acute air pollution. The haze from Indonesian forest fires, many deliberately set to clear land for oil palms, caused at least 12,000 premature deaths in 2015 alone.

Palm Oil Expanding in Africa

The oil palm tree, Elaeis guineensis, is native to west and central Africa, and commercial plantations that produce the oil are expanding in the region. According to National Geographic: “Palm oil is an ancient staple in West Africa, and its origins are artisanal rather than industrial. In Benin most palm oil is still produced by women for domestic use. The fruit is boiled and pounded to extract oil from the pulp. In Africa as in Southeast Asia, the crop is here to stay and it is an important source of income.

Gabon is one country that is starting to get into palm oil in a big way. It’s economy is largely petroleum based and it imports much of its food. The government sees industrial agriculture as an important part of the nation’s future and invited the Singapore-based palm oil company Olam to set up plantations. Hillary Rosner wrote in National Geographic: “In Gabon, one of Africa’s most forested countries, palm oil is coming home, and a boom may be on the horizon. Situated on the Equator and on the continent’s west coast, Gabon is roughly the size of Colorado with a third of the people. More than 76 percent of the country is covered in forest, with 11 percent of its land area protected in national parks. It’s a wildlife wonderland. “It’s exactly the kind of large, intact forest you want to protect from any kind of development,” says Glenn Hurowitz, CEO of Mighty Earth, a Washington D.C.-based environmental organization that has criticized Olam’s palm oil operations in Gabon. “There’s so much degraded land [across the tropics]. Why would you send your palm oil plantations to countries that have so much existing forest?” [Source: Hillary Rosner, National Geographic, December 2018]

“One answer is that Gabon wants them. The former French colony has the fourth highest GDP per capita in sub-Saharan Africa, but much of the revenue comes from petroleum. Gabon imports much of its food: Wheat and milk come from France; beef is flown in from India and Brazil. The government of President Ali Bongo Ondimba, who won a controversial election in 2016 to a second seven-year term, wants to add commercial agriculture — including palm oil — to Gabon’s economy. That requires cutting down trees. Recognizing the conflicting demands on its land, the government has embarked on a project few other nations have tried: a national land-use plan.

“Two and a half hours from Libreville, we pull onto a red dirt road toward the Awala plantation. This area is secondary forest, one of the places where logging first began in Gabon. The government gave Olam roughly 50,000 acres here — of which the company has planted oil palms on about a third. Another third is conserved as one block of forest, and the rest remains standing in smaller parcels, some of it on steep hillsides.

Palm Oil and Biofuel

According to the New York Times palm oil "is quickly gaining use as a diesel fuel substitute, particularly in Europe, where demand is being driven by a European Union goal requiring that 10 percent of all transportation fuel should come from renewable sources by 2020. While the Union requires that such fuels must generate fewer emissions than conventional sources, it fails to take sufficient account of rainforest clearance, making the standard meaningless, the advocates say." [Source: New York Times, June 3, 2010]

Ben Webster wrote in The Times,“In 2008, British motorists used 27 million litres of palm oil from Indonesia and 64 million litres from Malaysia, according to the Renewable Fuels Agency, the government-funded watchdog that monitors biofuel supplies. Fuel companies also supplied 32 million litres of palm oil from “unknown’ countries. The agency knows which companies are using palm oil but is refusing to name them on the ground that the information is commercially sensitive. [Source: Ben Webster, The Times, August 15, 2009 **]

Vast tracts of rainforest are destroyed each year by companies seeking to take advantage of the world’s growing appetite for plant-based alternatives to fossil fuel. In theory, greenhouse gas emissions from burning biofuel are lower than those from fossil fuel because crops absorb carbon dioxide as they grow. But clearing rainforest to create biofuel plantations releases vast quantities of carbon stored in trees and soil. It takes up to 840 years for a palm oil plantation to soak up the carbon emitted when rainforest is burnt to plant the crop. [Source: Ben Webster, The Times, August 15, 2009 **]

Palm Oil Biofuel: Not as Environmentally Friendly as Touted

Palm oil factory in Cote d'Ivoire
There are two types of biofuel bioethanol which is produced from carbohydrate-based plants namely sugarcane, corn, beet, wheet and sorgum while biodiesel is made from vegetable oilseeds such as rapeseed, sunflower, soybean and palm oil. Biofuel can be derived from dozens of crops but many fuel companies choose palm oil because it can be cheaper than the more sustainable alternatives such as rapeseed.

Natasha Gilbert wrote in Nature: In principle, biodiesel made from palm oil could be environmentally friendly, because the carbon dioxide released when it is burned is roughly the same as that absorbed as the plant grows. But vast swathes of forest have been cut down to make way for the crop, often in carbon-rich peatlands, where tree burning and soil degradation release extra stores of the global-warming gas. A recent life-cycle assessment suggested that it could take up to 220 years for a plantation to become carbon neutral (W. M. J. Achten and L. V. Verchot Ecol. Soc. 16, 14; 2011). [Source: Natasha Gilbert, Nature, July 4, 2012]

In January, after the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that palm-oil fuels emitted only 11–17 percent less greenhouse gas than diesel over their entire life cycle, it suggested that the oil should not be classified as a renewable fuel. Although a public consultation on the matter concluded in April, the EPA has not set a date to issue its final ruling. But the European Union (EU) continues to encourage the use of fuels based on palm oil. The EU has a binding target to raise the share of biofuels used in road transport to 10 percent by 2020, and most of that is expected to be met by blending biofuels such as palm oil with conventional fuels.

Big Oil Companies, Palm Oil Bioefuel and Deforestation

Ben Webster wrote in The Times, “Fuel companies are accelerating the destruction of rainforest by secretly adding palm oil to diesel. Twelve oil companies supplied a total of 123 million litres of palm oil to filling stations in the year to April, according to official figures obtained by The Times. Only 15 percent of the palm oil came from plantations that met any kind of environmental standard. Much of the rest came from land previously occupied by rainforest. [Source: Ben Webster, The Times, August 15, 2009 **]

“Under a European Union initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, 3.25 percent of the total amount of fuel sold by each oil company must be biofuel. The proportion is due to rise to 13 percent by 2020. In practice most companies meet the obligation by adding biofuel to diesel, creating a blend that contains about 5 percent biofuel. The companies are not obliged to inform motorists that the petrol or diesel they buy contains biofuel. **

“Several leading fuel industry figures sit on the agency’s board, including a director of the oil company BP and a senior executive from the coalmining group Anglo American. The agency said that the directors had not been involved in the decision to withhold the names of the companies. It is almost inevitable that we will use palm oil because the amount of biofuel we will need is increasing. Palms deliver one of the highest volumes of oil per hectare of any crop. That means we can use less land to produce the same amount of oil. **

Ian Duff, a forest campaigner for Greenpeace, said: “It cannot be right that the watchdog on biofuels has oil company directors on its board. The agency is preventing the public from discovering which of these companies are selling us palm oil, one of the cheapest and most environmentally damaging biofuels.” Several major oil companies are exploiting a loophole in the agency’s reporting system to avoid declaring what type of land has been used to grow their biofuel. They are obliged to submit a sustainability report but in the section on the previous use of the land are allowed to say ‘unknown’. When calculating the greenhouse gas savings from biofuel the agency ignores the previous use of the land. **

“Esso said that it did not know the previous use of the land on which 95 percent of its biofuel was grown. It also refused to say whether it had used any palm oil. BP said that its biofuel included palm oil but claimed that it all came from certified plantations. It failed to declare the previous use of the land for 79 percent of its biofuel. Total refused to say whether it used any palm oil. Murco admitted using palm oil but did not respond to questions about its origins. Total, Chevron and Murco all failed to declare the previous use of the land that was the source of more than half their biofuel. Chevron admitted using palm oil from uncertified sources.Shell had the best record of the major companies for declaring the sources of its biofuel. It said that it did not use any palm oil last year because it could not find any from a sustainable source.

Bans, Better Management and Making Palm Oil More Rainforest-Friendly

The U.S. stopped inbound shipments from some top producers in Malaysia on allegations of forced labor in the second-biggest grower, while the EU plans to phase out palm-based biofuels by classifying the commodity from large plantations as unsustainable. [Source: Anusha Ondaatjie, Bloomberg, April 6, 2021]

Joe Fassler wrote in Smithsonian magazine : Under pressure from Greenpeace the world’s largest palm oil trader, Wilmar International, signed a 100 percent zero-deforestation agreement in 2013. Public outcry also moved the European Union to change its labeling laws in 2014, making it easier to spot palm oil on ingredient lists. (The U.S. has required labeling of specific oils since 1976.) Concerned buyers can also look for a seal of approval from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Some critics argue that the RSPO, founded in 2004 by industry leaders, doesn’t go far enough: Its standards forbid deforestation only in “high conservation value areas,” a term that has no legal definition. And a trader who earns an RSPO certificate can go on to mix “clean” and uncertified oil. What’s more, the world’s largest palm oil markets are in India, China and Indonesia, where most consumers — who use it for cooking — may not even be aware of such options. [Source: Joe Fassler, Smithsonian magazine, March 2016]

“Still, more big food companies are getting the message. On its 2015 sustainable palm oil scorecard, the Union of Concerned Scientists gave high ratings to such companies as Gerber, Kellogg’s, Unilever, General Mills, PepsiCo, Dunkin’ Donuts and Safeway. Environmental NGOs ultimately hope to see oil palm growers planting on already-deforested land. In the meantime, they warn against boycotting palm oil altogether. “That would mean shifting problems onto another commodity,” says Katie McCoy, the head of forest programs at CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project). Moreover, from a health perspective, palm oil is the ideal substitute for partially hydrogenated oils, the “trans fats” that food processors love and health experts hate. Palm oil is semisolid at room temperature and can stay stable for long periods without going rancid. Sustainable palm oil may be elusive, but it’s possible — and, in fact, it may even be necessary for the planet’s healthy future.

Palm oil would be much more sustainable if it were managed responsibly, says Nigel Sizer, director of the Global Forest Initiative at the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank based in Washington DC. “It is possible to have carbon-neutral plantations if they are grown on already heavily logged and degraded land,” he says. Krystof Obidzinski, a forest-governance researcher at the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor, Indonesia, agrees that there is plenty of non-forested or degraded land that could be used for plantations, but says that nations and companies need incentives to use it. Forested land is more attractive because companies can get extra income from the timber, and it is also less likely to be inhabited by large numbers of locals who can claim land rights and financial compensation, says Obidzinski. [Source: Natasha Gilbert, Nature, July 4, 2012]

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is an international non-profit association based in Zurich, Switzerland that brings together conservation groups and palm-oil firms. It was formed in 2004 by the palm oil industry in Malaysia in conjunction with the WWF, it aims to ensure development of palm oil in a sustainable way. The RSPO has directly endorsed several organisations, such as 'GreenPalm', to help make a contribution towards improving the environmental issues caused by palm oil production. [Source: New York Times, June 3, 2010]

The RSPO has set up standards for producing palm oil sustainably and certifies producers that meet its criteria. Hillary Rosner wrote in National Geographic:“ Plantations certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) can’t clear “primary forests or areas which contain significant concentrations of biodiversity (e.g. endangered species) or fragile ecosystems.” They must minimize erosion and protect water sources. They must pay a minimum wage and get “free, prior, and informed consent” from local communities.[Source: Hillary Rosner, National Geographic, December 2018]

Top consumer goods companies, such as Unilever, Kellogg, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson are members, as well as agribusiness giant Cargill, the largest importer of palm oil to the United States, are working with RSPO. “Today the RSPO certifies roughly one-fifth of the global supply. Many consumer goods manufacturers that rely on palm oil have pledged to switch their supply chains exclusively to certified palm oil over the next few years. That’s a big step forward. But it’s not enough. “What’s essential and still mostly lacking is government intervention in producing countries. “We in the conservation community were vastly overoptimistic in thinking that market-based solutions alone could solve this,” says John Buchanan, who runs the sustainable food and agriculture markets program at Conservation International. “If the government isn’t on board or doesn’t have the capacity or doesn’t know what it’s doing,” he says, the rain forest still takes a hit.

Skepticism About RSPO

The RSPO says that that it will not certify oil grown on land that was deforested to farm the crop. According to Nature: But many are skeptical that the RSPO can effectively police the industry’s rapid growth. “I am not confident at all that this is being done properly,” says Joshua Linder, a biological anthropologist at the James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He and others are keenly watching how the RSPO handles a flood of complaints filed against a planned 70,000-hectare oil-palm plantation in Cameroon, for example, in what is seen as a test case of the body’s power to hold companies to account. In a statement, the RSPO told Nature that it was prepared to act in serious cases of environmental negligence, when it “may ultimately require a member to take specific actions or face cancellation of its RSPO membership”. [Source: Natasha Gilbert, Nature, July 4, 2012]

The New York Times reported, “Many environmentalists say the panel merely provides green cover to industry. They were particularly critical of its decision last year to exclude greenhouse gas emissions when deciding whether to certify oil as sustainable. Participating companies, particularly Indonesian growers, were reluctant to create a standard they could meet only by slowing forest clearance, and pressured the board to omit it, said Adam Harrison, who represents the conservation group WWF at the roundtable. Members agreed instead to develop a voluntary program for growers to measure the greenhouse gases generated by their plantations. [Source: New York Times, June 3, 2010]

20120601-palm oilaeis_guineensis_MS_4765.JPG
The industry says this was at least a step forward. “It was widely accepted that the development of plantations in the palm oil sector” caused emissions, said Marc den Hartog, a member of the roundtable’s board and an executive at IOI Group, a Malaysian palm oil company. There would be more progress, he said, “despite the fact that for many people it won’t go fast enough.” In the first year after it began certifying palm oil in 2009, the roundtable certified about two million tons as sustainable, in an industry that produces more than 45 million tons a year. Meeting certification requirements can add as much as $100 a ton to the price of a commodity that generally runs around $600 a ton, Mr. den Hartog said.

But campaigners say that certifying palm oil just shifts the problem. Growers use long-cleared land for sustainable oil while destroying forest to create plantations catering to less choosy consumers. The industry’s structure makes it difficult to influence, said Mr. Harrison, of WWF. While some big growers, processors and lenders produce and bankroll palm oil, “there are thousands of smaller companies, especially in Indonesia, one-off units that are much more difficult for us to get leverage over.”

Worse still, Indonesia’s government and local authorities often require companies holding land concessions to destroy all rainforest in their permit area, once it has been officially designated for development, Mr. Harrison said. That is contrary to roundtable guidelines encouraging the setting aside of zones for wildlife habitat, he said. “It becomes very difficult for a company that wants to be responsible to be responsible,” he said.

Sustainable Palm Oil Agriculture in Gabon?

Singapore-based agribusiness giant Olam has opened two new oil palm plantations, each with its own mill in Gabon. More than half of Olam’s Mouila plantation occupies savanna a site chosen to avoid more deforestation. Gabon has developed a national land-use plan that attempts to “keep a balance between oil palm, agriculture, and forestry. Olam employs nearly 6,000 workers at Mouila and pays them Gabon’s minimum wage of about $260 a month. [Source: Hillary Rosner, National Geographic, December 2018]

Hillary Rosner wrote in National Geographic:““In southwestern Gabon, the old-growth forest stretches hundreds of miles. One January morning I disembark from a narrow boat on the shore of the Ngounié River with a few employees of Olam, a Singapore-based agribusiness company. Following elephant tracks, we plunge into the forest. We pass towering, ancient trees, chimpanzee nests, piles of day-old gorilla dung. Monkeys scamper overhead. A young Olam ranger yanks off his boots and climbs barefoot up a trunk, returning with handfuls of pink, plumlike fruits. Wandering farther we find wild mangoes, kola nuts, bark that smells of garlic. At a sun-dappled clearing, fish splash in a watering hole. The trees around it have been scratched by elephant tusks.

“The place is not a park or a preserve but part of the Mouila oil palm plantation, operated by Olam. If it were in Indonesia or Malaysia loggers and bulldozers might be closing in to clear the jungle for uniform rows of oil palm trees. That kind of shortsighted ecological rampaging is precisely what Gabon is trying to avoid. The Eden I visited will not be razed: Olam has protected it as part of an agreement with the government that allows the company to grow oil palms elsewhere on its concession. “What we’re trying to do in Gabon is find a new development path where we don’t cut all our forest down but keep a balance between oil palm, agriculture, and forest preservation,” says Lee White, the conservation biologist who runs Gabon’s parks agency. As the nation of fewer than two million people embarks on industrial-scale agriculture, the government is using scientific assessments to decide which parts of its expansive forests have high conservation value and which can be opened to oil palms.

Inside the plantation, it’s easy to lose your sense of direction amid row upon row of palm trees, punctuated by indistinguishable dirt roads. At the end of each row, workers have piled fresh palm-fruit bunches and loose fruit. In the afternoon other workers will toss the fruit into dump trucks, which will deliver it to an on-site mill that processes 50 tons of oil an hour. At Olam’s Mouila plantation, farther south, an even bigger mill is producing twice as much oil. More than half the planted area at Mouila was open savanna. Research here has revealed the presence of a rare antelope, the southern reedbuck. Photographed by a camera trap in 2017, the animal is helping White justify a new national park in the savanna.

“Atop a small hill within the plantation, we climb to the roof of a truck. For 180 degrees, the rows of oil palms stretch nearly to the horizon. In the scorching, the monochrome view is dizzying. The map Stewart of the plantation is even more sobering. This section of plantation covers nearly 40,000 acres; what we’re seeing is less than 7 percent of that.

Sri Lanka Boycotts Palm Oil and Orders Palm Oil Trees to Be Destroyed

In 2021, Sri Lanka banned imports of palm oil and told planters to get rid of all palm oil palms in the country. Bloomberg reported: “The island nation joined some other countries in bashing palm oil. Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered companies and other entities growing oil palm to remove the trees in a phased manner. They have been asked to uproot 10 percent of the trees each year and replace the fields with rubber or other environment-friendly crops, according to an official statement. [Source: Anusha Ondaatjie, Bloomberg, April 6, 2021]

“Palm oil imports don’t help their cash crops, while oil palm plantations could lead to deforestation in the country,” said Gnanasekar Thiagarajan, head of trading and hedging strategies at Kaleesuwari Intercontinental. “Sri Lanka is a top producer of coconut oil and palm oil could pose a threat to that sector,” he said, adding the nation annually buys 200,000 tons to 250,000 tons of palm oil.

Sri Lanka has around 11,000 hectares (27,181 acres) of palm plantations — just over 1 percent of the total area planted with tea, rubber and coconut, CAL Research said. “Sri Lanka’s Director-General of Customs has been advised to refrain from clearing palm oil cargoes, the statement said. At the same time, the cultivation of oil palm will be completely banned, it added. “The members of the World Trade Organization cannot ban imports without proper justifications and the latest move could technically be challenged,” said Sathia Varqa, owner of Palm Oil Analytics in Singapore. “A temporary ban is fine but not a permanent ban as non-discrimination is the basic principle of the WTO.”

Food Companies Take a Stronger Stance on Palm Oil Use

According to the New York Times: As awareness of deforestation grows, consumer pressure has prompted many companies to promise to use palm oil from sustainable sources only. Unilever, a huge user of palm oil in products like Dove soap and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, has promised that by 2015 it will buy only from plantations certified as sustainable. Nestlé, singled out by Greenpeace in an aggressive online campaign, recently made a similar pledge. The roundtable met last year with the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in an effort to promote the use of the sustainable product in that country, which is the world’s largest importer of palm oil, said Mr. den Hartog, of IOI Group. [Source: New York Times, June 3, 2010]

In 2020, Mars Inc., the maker of Snickers and Dove candy, said it no longer buy from palm-oil suppliers that were not committed to preventing deforestation. According to Bloomberg: “The company said that it has reached the point where its palm-oil use is no longer contributing to the clearing of tropical forests — a practice that’s a major contributor to global warming. With fewer suppliers, Mars said it’s easier to verify that the providers are meeting environmental and ethical goals. [Source: Carolina Gonzalez and Eric Roston, Bloomberg, October 6, 2020]

“Mars is using satellite mapping to monitor land use and third-party validation, and says it has asked its suppliers to apply the same rules to all production, including for other buyers. Mars has gotten rid of two major suppliers and 21 second-tier suppliers for not following its protocols. “We have cleaned up our act,” said Barry Parkin, chief procurement and sustainability officer at Mars. He added that the aim is for the changes to improve behavior across the entire industry. “We’re weeding out the bad actors and we’re rewarding the good actors,” he added in an interview.While a tighter supply chain is easier to regulate, it also lets Mars “shorten the pipeline” from plantation to refinery, lowering costs, Parkin said.

“With awareness rising, Mars and peers such as Mondelez International Inc., Nestle SA and Unilever NV have pledged to take steps to prevent further environmental damage. In a 2019 report, the World Wildlife Fund gave Mars a score of 17.3 out of 22, which ranks companies on their efforts to prevent deforestation and support a responsible and sustainable palm-oil industry. That places Mars as the 12th best performer amid the 173 total in the study.

Alternatives to Palm Oil Are Often Worse

Boycotting palm oil may not be a good idea. Hillary Rosner wrote in National Geographic: Alternative oil crops would swallow even more land. It’s also futile, because palm oil is so pervasive and so often processed into ingredients, such as sodium lauryl sulfate and stearic acid, whose origins are opaque to consumers. We’re not likely to cut palm oil consumption radically. The only way forward is to make its production less bad. [Source:Hillary Rosner, National Geographic, December 2018]

Joe Fassler wrote in Smithsonian magazine: Consumers who want to avoid palm oil have an almost impossible task because it’s in everything from ice cream to instant ramen, toothpaste to lipstick....As destructive as the oil palm is to the environment, it may be better than the alternatives. No other crop can yield even a third as much oil per acre planted. And along with using less land, the oil palm gobbles up significantly fewer pesticides and chemical fertilizers than coconut, corn or any other vegetable oil source.[Source: Joe Fassler, Smithsonian magazine, March 2016]

In many ways, the palm oil sectors is doing more to address deforestation concerns than other sectors that threaten rainforests. In 2021 Reuters reported: Of the seven commodities sectors driving deforestation, palm oil companies are doing the most to alleviate their environmental impact following years of public pressure, a study by CDP, a global environmental disclosure group shows. Based on responses from more than 550 leading companies in the agri-commodities sector, the study found nearly all who use or produce palm oil are taking at least one industry accepted measure to address deforestation, such as having sufficiently ambitious traceability targets. Companies involved with rubber, by contrast, are doing the least, while the coffee and cattle products sector also perform poorly, the study found. “Palm oil has been the subject of public campaigns in recent years. Companies see palm oil as a reputational risk," it noted. [Source: Maytaal Angel, Reuters, March 21, 2021

Image Source: Mongabay ; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2022

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