Present and Persistent Palm Oil Problems

The IUCN Oil Palm Task Force has just published a review of the current conundrums of industrial oil palm crops in the tropics. Land-clearing for plantations geard toward international palm oil production remain one of the most serious threats to tropical rainforests and the biodiversity they represent, including orangutans, tigers, rhinos, elephants, and sunbears.

“…there is strong evidence that palm oil is here to stay. Given a certain global demand for vegetable oils, and the fact that the oil palm produces these oils more effectively than any other crop, there appears to be no straightforward way to phase out palm oil without incurring potentially more significant environmental and social impacts elsewhere from compensatory expansion of alternative oil crops.”

(16) Oil palm and biodiversity : a situation analysis by the IUCN Oil Palm Task Force. Available from: [accessed Jun 27 2018].

In other words, species are going extinct because… people need food. To some extent, the palm oil crisis is one symptom of the general problem of the still-increasing size of the human population. The oil palm is incredibly efficient at producing oil for human consumption, compared to other oil crops, so if we were to reduce or halt palm oil production (by, say, boycotting all palm oil products) without also reducing overall global demand for vegetable oils we would almost certainly have an even bigger problem. True, many other crops can grow in places that do not currently host such rich biodiversity and such heart-breakingly charismatic species.

There is a glimmer of hope in changing policies about how and where palm oil is grown, to at least slow the destruction of habitat and clearing of rainforests.

“…we urgently need concerted action to make palm oil production more sustainable, ensuring that all parties – governments, producers and the supply chain – honour their sustainability commitments.”
Inger Andersen, IUCN Director General

We need to act swiftly, but also with great care, in the face of this huge and wicked problem. Choosing only to by from companies that use only sustainably-sourced palm oil is just the beginning. Pressuring all of the big corporations that use palm oil to shift to certified sustainable palm oil is the next logical step. As I said previously,

This problem is so big and so pervasive that a handful of us tree-huggers refusing Oreos is barely going to make a dent – the companies involved won’t budge without a large, organized push.  So by all means, reduce your complicity, but don’t forget to organize and collaborate for maximum effect.

A partial shift away from palm oil to other crops may not be the worst of all options, allowing us to halt expanded land clearing if demand continues to grow, especially as orangutans and other large mammals teeter precariously near extinction’s brink. And yes, if we really want this situation to change, it’s past time to think deeply about ways to fairly and humanely reduce the number of humans on this planet, and other options for creating a thriving economy without constant growth.

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