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Palm Oil: To Boycott or not to Boycott?

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I get asked a lot whether you should stop buying products with palm oil altogether. The answer is “no,” for three major reasons.

Palm Oil Plantation

Oil palm plantations are more productive and store more carbon than any other vegetable oil crop, but when they replace forests and peatland there are serious climate and biodiversity implications.

First, different vegetable oils can be easily substituted in many applications. Most of us have experienced this firsthand. If you’re cooking dinner and realized you’re out of olive oil, rather than head to the store and buy some, you just reach for the canola oil instead.

Second, because of this substitutability, a decrease in demand for palm oil from one company or country won’t mean an overall decrease in palm oil demand. If customers in the U.S. stop buying palm oil, then to meet its vegetable oil demand the U.S. has to import more of another oil to meet its current demand. If the U.S. is buying more, say, canola oil then it means that another country somewhere else is buying less. The other country needs to find something to meet its demand and is likely to buy the cheapest vegetable oil on the market: palm oil.

Finally, the oil palm is a great crop. It’s a tree that doesn’t have to be replanted every year and the typical rotation for a palm plantation is 25 years. It also stores a lot of carbon. Not as much as a forest, but more than grasslands and other agricultural crops. And above all else, it’s highly productive. To replace all palm oil on the global market with another oil would take between 5-8 times as much land.

So the problem isn’t with palm oil, but arises when forests and peatlands are converted to plantations. This leads to loss of habitat and millions of tonnes of carbon emissions. The solution isn’t to boycott palm oil, but rather to demand that companies use and produce palm that is deforestation- and peat-free.

Posted in: Global Warming, Tropical Forests Tags: ,

About the author: Calen May-Tobin is a lead analyst with the Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative and conducts research on palm-related deforestation and how to reduce the land-use carbon footprint of the palm oil industry. He holds a Master’s degree in ecology from the University of California, Irvine. See Calen's full bio.

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  • deb

    Before you totally devalue the action to boycott may I suggest you look at the very powerful draw card that a boycott offers for two reasons. Many people are drawn to this issue by answering the call to boycott because boycotting is a black/white option – this is simpler and sexy and empowers people from the get go by giving them a clear option without having to learn too much about the issue. If we were to draw people to the issue by launching into the options of conflict palm oil, uncertified palm oil, green palm, mass balance,IP & Seg CSPO (which would be needed to be able to explain what IP & Seg CSPO is )we would would lose their attention within 5 secs. So it is an extremely useful tool to bring people to the cause. Hopefully once they spend some time within the issue they will learn the many complexities of this issue and learn that the main way forward, which will bring the biggest result, is by supporting and encouraging the move to deforestation-free palm oil. Eventually they will educate themselves enough to jump the fence towards IP & Seg CSPO, if not for themselves but for the majority of people in the developing world who will never boycott palm oil(due to lack of options and economics)and who are the largest consumers of this oil globally.
    The second reason is because ‘boycotts’ bring attention to the media for the same reasons ….the 5 sec grab, and we all know that to keep an issue in the fickle media we need attention grabbing methods, slogans or marketing therefore the boycott method is a quick and sexy option for the media to latch onto just as the orangutan is the symbol which is used to represent the over 4,000 species for flora and fauna Indigenous to Indonesia & Malaysia which will be wiped out if all the rainforests of these region disappear.

  • Christine Olle

    Well said Michelle Desilets! #NoDeforestationforPalmOil

  • http://www.palmoilconsumers.com Robert Hii

    I find the question too broad and the fear mongering of hell to come if one does boycott palm oil to be irresponsible.

    There aren’t enough informed or concerned consumers out in the market to create a boycott so big that it would drive up demand for other veg oils.

    Therefore personal boycotts are necessary to force change. I have never seen a corporation decide to become environmentally responsible simply because they felt like it. We could make demands all day long but if they don’t feel it in their sales, things will never change.

    The references to palm oil as a better choice for the planet would be correct if all of it was planted as recommended. However, the harsh truth is that the majority of palm oil supply in the market today is grown at the expense of endangered wild animals, human rights abuses and massive green house gas emissions.

    Do we keep supporting that model simply because we fear what the alternatives may do?

    Until these corporations that use palm oil commit to the use of traceable sustainable palm oil as Hershey and Unilever has done, it is the moral obligation of conscientious consumers,groups or institutions to distance themselves from the devastating social and environmental impacts of palm oil which can be seen today.

  • Leeann

    How do we know which Palm oils are deforestation free?

  • Larry

    So until a company is using deforestation free
    Palm oil I won’t use that product.
    What other way do you suggest that we can let
    The palm oil company’s know that we don’t
    want our products to have an ingredient in it the
    devastates forests and the indigenous people and
    wildlife in them?

  • http://www.forests4orangutans.org Michelle Desilets

    Orangutan Land Trust agrees with you 100%. I would like to add that MAXIMUM yields for oil palm are actually as much as 20 times greater than that of the maximum yield of soya. The percentages you quoted are for average yields. In any case, if agriculturalist companies operating in tropical regions like Indonesia and Malaysia were somehow compelled to switch to another oilseed crop, the deforestation could be as much as 20 times what it is under oil palm. Oil palm CAN be grown sustainably in areas without forests or peat, and WRI has demonstrated that there is more than sufficient land like this available for example in Borneo to meet the projected increased demand.

    Boycotting all palm oil and making no distinction between conventional palm oil and deforestation-free palm oil will not change how palm oil is produced for the billions of people globally who consume it daily. Only be demanding that the palm oil used, especially in global brands, is deforestation-free, will we start to see some benefit to forests and biodiversity. With more than 50% of palm oil now falling under the commitment of major suppliers for deforestation-free, that balance has finally started to tip.

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