nobody knew sustainability could be so complicated
July 13, 2017 6:47 PM   Subscribe

The world’s most ubiquitous vegetable oil and growing in popularity as a biofuel, palm oil’s impacts have been dire and dramatic. Habitat devastation, child labor violations, displacement of indigenous peoples and climate change acceleration is worsening as palm oil production spreads from Southeast Asia to South America and West Africa. The award-winning film Frontera Invisible (2016) documents the human cost of the rush by big landowners' to convert acreage to palm oil to produce ‘green’ fuel for the European market. The 2016 Oxfam report Feeding Climate Change on food commodities found that palm oil industry has the fourth highest greenhouse gas emissions footprint; in late 2015, the forest fires in Southeast Asia, many set to clear rainforests and peatland for palm plantation, had daily emissions higher than the daily emission output of the U.S.

Activist pressure on the supply chains producers and buyers has had some results. In April of this year, the European Parliament passed a resolution aiming to limit the import of palm oil that has caused deforestation. In June, Unilever suspended sourcing from an Indonesian-based palm oil supplier due to proof of the company’s continued policy of deforestation and peatland clearance. WWF’s Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard and Rainforest Action Network’s Snack Food 20 Scorecard seek to hold global firms accountable through consumer pressure -- PepsiCo is singled out in Rainforest Action Network’s latest report. A coalition of environmental groups are following the money “to highlight the role that finance plays in enabling tropical deforestation.” For example, New Zealand's largest government investment funds have more than $20 million invested in foreign palm oil companies. Engage the Chain provides an investor guide to environmental and social challenges associated with eight major food commodities. Individual consumer action at the point of purchase is insufficient, "solutions lie in shaping the context within which individuals make their choices."
posted by spamandkimchi (22 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
......ah, externalities the gift that keeps on giving taking
posted by lalochezia at 7:18 PM on July 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Purely from a gustatory and physiological perspective, palm oil is pretty gross and bad for you. I can't see any reason to keep cultivating it on an industrial scale.
posted by clockzero at 7:23 PM on July 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I thought we were long past the age where "sustainability" had any discernible meaning outside of corporate marketing.

Speaking of which, the Unilever link is borked. Here's the correct one.
posted by klanawa at 7:42 PM on July 13, 2017

Palm oil is cheap, and used in millions of consumer goods and products, many of them essential. If you ban palm oil, the prices of everything will go up, especially stuff like inexpensive food, shampoos and soaps, etc., which will badly hit the lower income. Not to say we shouldn't do it, but it's very tricky.
posted by destrius at 8:20 PM on July 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

As a Malaysian who's seen first hand over decades how vast swathes of the country has been turned into palm oil plantations... I have many mixed feelings on this.

I used to go to school near a tin mining tailing pond. Malaysia used to be the largest exporter of tin in the world, we mined a lot of it - about 100,000 tonnes per year. Nowadays we produce just 2,000 tonnes per year. China and Indonesia have taken over, each producing 100,000 tonnes themselves nowadays. Tin mining is pretty ugly, it gouges unsightly scars in the land, killing everything, and leaving a growing pond of (toxic?) waste behind.

A country needs to eat, of course, so we moved on to other things. I'm a lot happier with palm oil. There is a long stretch of plantation between the airport and the city, the rich evergreen fronds of the trees a welcoming sight. You can see green "forest" as far as the eye can see: an industrially manufactured one, to be sure, but it's a forest nonetheless - each oil palm tree has significant biomass and lasts 30 years. This is unlike, say, the production of soybean oil, where there is no forest and no biomass outside of the growing season, thus no carbon sequestration, and the entire plant gets harvested and discarded leaving just bare dirt behind.

A long as people consume oil, it needs to be produced in some fashion. Oil palms produce something like 6,000 litres per hectare per year. The second most used oil in the world, soybean, only produces something like 500 litres per hectare per year. Malaysia currently has, maybe, 6 million hectares of palm oil plantations, out of its total 33 million hectares of land. Switching to soybean would require 72 million hectares of land be cleared for agriculture. I don't think that is the right thing to do. Boycotting palm oil would be a silly move, in my opinion.

I don't think going back to tin mining, or any other kind of mining, is the right thing to do either. It's not sustainable the way palm oil is. In fact palm oil looks to be far more sustainable then soybean, based on the planting life-cycle (plant once for 30 years yield at 12x higher yield per hectare vs soybeans which need to get replanted once per year)

A lot of people see all the bad press about palm oil as economic warfare waged by competitors to damage the reputation of a superior product. Well, it's a post truth world, after all. I don't use palm oil in cooking - I've heard equal tales of how it's healthier and also unhealthier - I mainly stick to canola, peanut, sunflower or olive oil depending on how I want the taste of the dish to end up.
posted by xdvesper at 8:29 PM on July 13, 2017 [26 favorites]

Purely from a gustatory and physiological perspective, palm oil is pretty gross and bad for you

On the basis of plantains cooked in palm oil alone, I would disagree with this most strongly.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:54 PM on July 13, 2017

Further to xdvesper's observations, palm oil plantations helped replace the original rubber plantations, which in themselves suffered from price shocks, and eventually aging trees needing replacement. Palm oil was faster growing, requiring less labour intensive methods. The timing was just right for the plantations to switch over.

Over these three decades Malaysia accomplished a transition from a primary product-dependent economy to one in which manufacturing industry had emerged as the leading growth sector. Rubber and tin, which accounted for 54.3 percent of Malaysian export value in 1970, declined sharply in relative terms to a mere 4.9 percent in 1990 (Crouch, 1996, 222)
posted by infini at 1:25 AM on July 14, 2017

In West Africa, however, there have been gross and egregious transgressions in landgrabbing and exclusion of the local population in the recent years of palm oil plantation development.
posted by infini at 1:29 AM on July 14, 2017

Super FPP, spamandkimchi
posted by infini at 1:29 AM on July 14, 2017

i'll add my own brief thoughts as a malaysian. as much as i agree with a lot of the above, the other elephant of the room is that the land cultivation (either this or the previous ones as mentioned), has brought mixed development results to different stakeholders. to the domestic economy on average? undoubtedly a net positive.

but inside it, in part because as a federation where land issues are states' rights and not federal, it has led to entrenched subnational corruption (which is aided and abetted by federal corruption feeding into a one-party/coalition rule we all know and maybe tolerate); continued marginalisation of indigenous peoples (whose hereditary rights weren't in the fashion recognised by the british, and thus the colonial land code was inherited and never really adjusted, and the only justice we're seeing now is when various tribes mount legal actions against this) -- i've visited settlements and communities who now live in between the edges of the various plantations, who now have to buy most of their food, since they can no longer cultivate the land for the most part; and further erosion of our biodiversity, as lands are parcelled out for plantations and logging and other developments, fracturing our biodiversity regions and supposedly protected areas, causing stress to the local wildlife and then also to the neighbouring farm/agriculture communities etc etc; and yes also the burgeoning immigrant labour force, often illegal and definitely underprotected.

but on the other hand, i know that the local palm oil industry is keen to reform, though suspicious of the RSPO certification (because it's 'foreign'), so they are now making efforts to have their own accreditation body. and malaysia's biofuel efforts is very much palm oil waste-based as well. but it is an evil i would like us to manage better if not reduce altogether.
posted by cendawanita at 2:52 AM on July 14, 2017 [9 favorites]

but i do cook with palm oil, because it's not like i can afford to choose much, in my case. but it's true, per volume, it's our most cost-effective solution. but rather like nuclear energy, it needs better management.
posted by cendawanita at 2:56 AM on July 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

nobody knew sustainability could be so complicated

Is this like when Condoleezza Rice claimed no one could have foreseen what was being simulated or written about in a couple of books?

Because the palm oil issue was brought up on The Oil Drum years ago.

i do cook with palm oil,...but it's true, per volume, it's our most cost-effective solution.

If one wants to see oil yields Journey to Forever has you covered. And mentions Algae based oil - a project abandoned by the US Government in the last century.
posted by rough ashlar at 3:45 AM on July 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

The effects of palm oil cultivation on wildlife are pretty awful. Malaysian tigers, Sumatran elephants, orangutans, numerous bird, plant and insect species are negatively affected by palm oil production in Malaysia and Indonesia. Granted the damage to land, animals and human communities is arguably less than you'd see with mining, or even other monoculture, but I've read harrowing accounts of mass killing of elephants, orangutans and even indigenous people who were simply 'in the way'
Palm oil is in so many products. You can't eliminate it from everything. I'd like to see more consideration toward the indigeonous peoples, the animals and plants and I think it's doable. The introduction of palm oil and chocolate in Africa has been catastrophic in many areas.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 4:19 AM on July 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

as much as I personally dislike palm oil and how it is now in literally everything I buy from food to soap, it is complicated as many above mention and truly very interesting to read the comments form Malaysians on this - thank you for sharing.

However, I wonder when it comes to the current coconut craze among Europeans. I think coconut is really an artificial hype in Europe and who benefits financially? At least superficially it seems not the people who grow it. It seems that the whole healthy living craze just needed another fad product and it saddens me that once more Europeans in pursuit of health and wellness exploit others in order to feel good about their food.
posted by 15L06 at 5:18 AM on July 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Food fads. Not too long ago so-called tropical oils were considered bad.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 6:17 AM on July 14, 2017

palm oil is pretty gross

Demonstrably false.

I haven't worked in Southeast Asia, but as far as West Africa goes, an internationally important agricultural product spurring landgrabs and concessions that benefit no one locally is sadly nothing new. Meet the new colonialism, same as the old. In the drier climes of the soudano-sahelian region, though, I saw a lot more development of jatropha oil for biofuel, mostly by smaller local landholders since it doesn't really have a standalone international industry like palm oil. And jatropha has the added benefit of acting as a useful living fence for cereals and other food crops - cows can't eat it.
posted by solotoro at 6:27 AM on July 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is why, soon, there will be no more wild orangutans.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 9:46 AM on July 14, 2017

cendawanita, a Malaysian certification + regulatory system is super appealing, even ignoring some knee-jerk nationalism. My skepticism about the RSPO label and other labels/certifications (fair trade, organic, etc) is that the end consumer takes it on faith that there is adequate monitoring and oversight, which I think is harder to achieve when the certifying group is located in Europe and the product/process being certified is in Asia.

solotero's point about how international food commodities and landgrabs go hand in hand is so key. Palm oil is a particularly intense and current example of this, but the problem is not palm oil per se, it's the baked in logic of cash crop capitalism.

I think the complexity of impacts (benefits and drawbacks) is hard to comprehend from afar, so things like "organic" end up as proxies for the "good" even when it doesn't actually tell the consumer anything about whether the farm is "family-owned" or the workers are fairly paid.
posted by spamandkimchi at 4:56 PM on July 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

The palm plantations are monocultures which make them awful for biodiversity, just as rubber plantations were. Palms themselves aren't the issue, but the method of farming which is to pliant them in rows for harvesting and use pesticides and create no corridors of other plant and wildlife. If there was a way to break up the monotony of plantations into pockets of them inside forest supporting diversity and other crops, that would mitigate the damage.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:03 PM on July 14, 2017

yeah, the fact that they are cultivated as monocultures has done quite a lot of negative impact. at the moment, if i'm not mistaken, there are a few projects and initiatives that are trying to preserve the biodiversity blocs from a few angles, complicated by the whole state v federal thing that i mentioned, and i don't know how it's done in indonesia. but i do know in sabah and i think also the peninsula, there are efforts to preserve the remaining non-plantation/logging lands in a more cohesive manner, because of the recognition that simply counting the total land means nothing if the protected areas exist in pockets or are segregrated, because it doesn't help the wildlife and plants existing inside.

otoh, based on what i know, and this is strictly not formal, other crops are allowed in, but based on the discretion of the land owner. i never got around to getting an answer from the management perspective, but basically, the locals (sometimes including the indigenous community) are allowed to cultivate the in-between parts or the fallow parts, for their own crops to use or sell. The land owners don't really provide anything more besides the use of land, and also permission to tap onto the irrigation and water supply. but everything else is up to the person. in this apparently, the govt comes into play, because there are a few entrepreneurship or capital loans programmes, so people do take out grants to buy piping and other tools. so far, the crops i know of include local tubers and pumpkins and bananas as well. so there is that, if there is the initiative to do so, and the ability to use the land.
posted by cendawanita at 6:11 AM on July 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

On the theme of some of the complexities involved in renewables: "Forest as fuel" (apparently not in their Youtube channel?), a documentary released in March this year by the Dutch news magazine Zembla. It's an investigation into whether the wood sourced to Dutch biomass plants, wood gasification and wood-burning, is genuinely from renewable sources as it's supposed to be—plantation trees that are replaced after being cut and remainder material from other logging operations, the accelerating transformation of natural habitats like wetlands into tree plantations, and the amount of Dutch government funds tagged for supporting renewable energy that end up paying for non-renewable harvesting and habitat destruction. Dutch with English subtitles, with a fair amount of footage filmed in the US.
posted by XMLicious at 10:26 AM on July 31, 2017

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