Palm Oil: To Boycott or not to Boycott?

March 6, 2014 | 10:14 am
Calen May-Tobin
Former contributor

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.