The true nature of (sustainable) palm oil

The truth behind the mask of sustainable palm oil

Your beloved biscuits, the chocolate spread you put on your sandwich in the morning, the soap in your bathroom. Even your toothpaste could well contain palm oil, as it is used in just about everything. It is the kind of product we never actually see, yet consume every day. In recent years, palm oil has come to be seen in a more negative light, until sustainable palm oil came along. Say no to destroying the rainforest, and hi to protection of biodiversity and better working and living conditions for employees. But is this really the case?

2020 Palmolie 2 kl

The blowing palm trees in Malaysia and Indonesia do not only provide postcard-worthy views. No, most of these trees are the ultimate source of palm oil, which is extracted by squeezing their fruits. This vegetable oil is known for giving structure to many products. For example, it ensures that chocolate does not melt. It is also heat-tolerant and has good storage potential. Because the oil is a cheap and stable fatty substance, the food industry uses it extensively. You can find it in frying oil, margarine and mayonnaise or as vegetable fat in biscuits, cakes and breakfast cereals and chocolate spread. Because it is so cheap, it is used in many products. The yield per hectare is higher than all other vegetable oils. Moreover, the oil requires low labour costs and cheap land acquisition.

Devastating character

2020 Ontbossing palmolie

(foto Glenn Hurowitz)

For nature and the indigenous population, however, palm oil is a different story. Rainforests are still being destroyed on a large scale in order to make way for the many palm oil plantations. The disappearance of this flora contributes to global warming and robs many animal species of their natural habitat. Moreover, the burning down of forest areas leads to heavy air pollution and CO2 emissions. The production of palm oil is also a major threat to the local population, farmers and their neighbours in particular. Their own land is taken from them and they are faced with harsh working conditions and exploitation. Despite these facts, the demand for palm oil continues to rise sharply.

The sense and nonsense of quality labels

2020 Palmolie 11 11 11 1

As consumers increasingly became aware of these problems, the international quality mark RSPO was created. RSPO is committed to promote the use of sustainable palm oil and verifies whether it is produced in a responsible manner. Among other things, the organization stands for full transparency, protection of the environment, favorable working conditions and respect for local legislation'. The label makes sure that the product consists of 95% certified palm oil.

Reality, however, isn’t always that pretty. 11.11.11 has previously denounced the fact that the RSPO criteria are not nearly strict enough. According to 11.11.11, this is due to the lack of independent control and sanctions. It is misleading to speak of sustainable palm oil when at the same time there are still major problems, even at RSPO companies. Several RSPO sister companies are committing violations and continue to get their hands dirty with social exploitation, poor working conditions and forest fires. As a consumer, it is impossible to know whether the palm oil in your product was produced sustainably or not. The RSPO label should at least be a minimum requirement for palm oil.

The Fair For Life label, then, does apply stricter measures than RSPO. Their requirements are the following: no child labour, trade union freedom, no discrimination, safe and healthy working conditions, acceptable working hours and living wages, no forced labour. In addition, Fair For Life always promotes stable trade relationships and a cost-effective minimum price for producers. What’s more, trade is always conducted with respect for local communities. Companies that wish to label their product with Fair For Life must prove that they act correctly throughout the entire supply chain.

What now?

Despite all conflicts, the production of palm oil does reduce poverty among the local communities and provides development opportunities for small-scale farmers. According to Oxfam, the key is to look for a production model that optimizes the benefits of palm oil while minimizing its drawbacks. The current initiatives do not succeed sufficiently in this aim and are poorly put into practice by the companies. Governments should therefore act as soon as possible to regulate the palm oil sector.

In March 2019, the European Commission already decided that palm oil can no longer be categorised as green fuel. This is a step forward since more than half of all palm oil in Europe is used in biofuel.

And you?

Wvd FT Choco kl

As a consumer, you could opt for more local, unprocessed and fresher products. But replacing palm oil with, for example, coconut oil would be a bad choice. The production of coconut oil has a whole set op problems itself. Try to avoid non-certified palm oil. Buy palm oil free rather than uncertified. Palm oil can also be replaced by regional products such as olive, sunflower or rapeseed oil. Finally, when buying, look for reliable labels such as Oxfam Fairtrade and Fair For Life. If you do so, your oil-based biscuits will taste a whole lot better.

Jana Van den Broeck

With a heart for sustainability and justice, Jana chose an internship at Ghent Fair Trade. She passionately writes about ecology and fair trade. Her main source of inspiration: the faces behind the Ghent Fair Trade Hotspots.

omslagfoto: (c) SumOfUs

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