Palm Oil: What's more important? Limiting deforestation or maintaining livelihoods for hundreds of small farmers? The answer depends on who you are.

Lipstick, pizza dough, instant noodles, ice cream, detergent, margarine, cookies, biodiesel, and soap.[1] These are just a few of many everyday products that are used worldwide which contain palm oil and in fact, “more than half of all packaged products Americans consume contain palm oil.”[2] The use of palm oil has increased in recent years because of its high yield and lower cost of production as compared to other vegetable oils.[3] While businesses may believe that using cheaper oil to produce their products is sustainable, the choice to continue rapid consumption of palm oil may detrimental in the long run. The reason for this concern is that many places where palm oil is sourced are unique ecosystems that are being destroyed to make room for this high profit, low land use product.[4] Where one hectare of land can product roughly “0.38 tons per year of soybean oil, 0.48 tons of sunflower oil, and 0.67 tons of rapeseed oil, that same hectare can product more than 3.7 tons of palm oil.” Due to the high yield rates and palm oil’s versatility, the palm oil business has taken off.[5] Whether or not this is a good thing, “depends on who you ask.”[6]

One perspective of this booming industry is a rather bleak one. Some would say that while the palm oil businesses are prospering, there are several groups in the world that are suffering, including the environment, animals, and people who are consuming products that may be detrimental to human health.[7] Additionally, other species are threatened due to the increased deforestation occurring, particularly the orangutan.[8] One group found that the orangutan population decreased by roughly 50% between 1992 and 2003 and this could be because of the deforestation from the increased production of palm oil.[9]

Although many groups around the world are concerned with the environmental issues this phenomenon is causing, one country has already attempted to address the growing use of palm oil.[10] In mid-2017, Norway passed legislation that prohibited the public procurement of palm oil-based biofuel.[11] The legislation simply says that palm oil-based biofuels are not to be procured or used by the Norwegian government.[12] This decision stems form the countries goal to make sure it “does not contribute to deforestation.”[13] Because this law was set to end the use of palm oil biofuels by the end of 2017,[14] the true effects of this are yet to be seen.

Another country that seemed to be working towards banning palm oil-based biofuels during 2017 is France.[15] French imports of biodiesel rose from 300,000 tons in 2010 to over 1.1 million tons in 2016.[16] Since July of 2017 when news about this new restriction began circulating throughout the world news, there have been no significant decisions and no implementation of new legislation in regards to palm oil-based biofuels in France, however that does not mean that these legislations will not be passed.

            Another huge impact to the palm oil industry is that the European parliament voted in April of 2017 to end the importation of unsustainable vegetable oil, including palm oil, by 2020.[17] The legislation demands a certification program to maintain that the imported oils are produced sustainably.[18] Because “[t]he [EU] is the second-largest palm oil export destination after India for both Malaysia and Indonesia,’ the impacts will be huge.[19] The amount of palm oil that goes to the EU is “worth at least $40 billion.”[20] As of September of 2017, the sales to the EU of Palm oil have “held up,”[21] although the effect of this legislation will likely be seen over the next two years while the unsustainable oils are phased out.

While many of the countries that import palm oil are becoming more aware and active regarding its impact on the environment, the countries that supply the product are fighting to maintain its relevance in the market. Currently, “Indonesia is the largest palm oil producing country in the world . . . [and] produces, on average, 36 million tonnes of palm oil per year.”[22] This number is expected to grow between now and 2020.[23] In 2014, Malaysia produced 19.5 million tons of palm oil and “together, these two countries produce 85% of the global palm oil supply.”[24] Other countries that produce large amounts of palm oil are Thailand, Columbia, and Nigeria.[25]

In previous years, both Indonesia and Malaysia have implemented sustainability schemes to cut back on environmental destruction and protect the natural environment in its respective countries.[26] Stemming from the history of palm oil within these countries, another prospective on this issue is that “a general ban of palm oil in biofuels . . . would punish the wrong producers while having little impact on reducing deforestation.”[27] In Columbia in particular, the farms for palm oil have been established on land formerly used for cattle ranching, open pastures, or cropland and thus the amount of deforestation has been limited.[28]

One article states “[m]illions of people running small-time oil palm plantations will suffer if the [EU] goes ahead with its ‘unfair’ measures that could curb palm oil use.”[29] The Prime Minister of Malaysia and the President of Indonesia said that “restricting access for palm oil would [] work against the United Nations’ goal of eradicating poverty and raising income levels” by affecting the livelihoods of many small plantation owners within these two countries.[30] The Indonesian government estimates that “17 million people [within its country] rely directly or indirectly on the commodity for their livelihood.”[31]  Malaysia said it might consider similar restrictions on products that are imported from countries that place restriction on its palm oil – as a retaliatory measure.[32]

Despite the competing information and sources on this topic, it is easy to understand how the production of large amount of palm oil may affect the world we live in. Instead of palm oil, some recommended that we (as in everyone in the world) use coconut oil.[33] At the same time, palm oil has many uses, can be produced cheaply, and is currently supporting the lives of so many people within the countries where it is produced – the issue then becomes whether it is a human rights issue to ban the importation from these countries and therefore strip these people of their livelihoods? This and other human rights questions will have to be addressed moving forward with legislation surrounding palm oil production and importation. 

 

[1] Which Everyday Products Contain Palm Oil?, World Wild Life WWF, (last visited Jan 11. 2018), https://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/which-everyday-products-contain-palm-oil.

[2] Overview, World Wild Life WWF (last visited Jan 11. 2018), https://www.worldwildlife.org/industries/palm-oil.

[3] Id.

[4] Palm Oil, Say No to Palm Oil (last visited Jan. 11, 2018), http://www.saynotopalmoil.com/Whats_the_issue.php.

[5] See Natasha Longo, Kind of Palm Fruit Oil and Why Coconut Oil Will Always be Superior, Truth Theory (Jan. 17, 2014), https://truththeory.com/2014/01/17/3-reasons-to-stay-away-from-any-kind-of-palm-fruit-oil-and-why-coconut-oil-will-always-be-superior/.

[6] Robert Hill, The Problem with Palm Oil, Huffington Post, (July 12, 2017, 1:29 PM), https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-problem-with-palm-oil_us_5966513de4b0deab7c646d4e.

[7] Longo, supra note 5. 

[8] Friends of the Earth, The Use of Palm Oil for Biofuel and as Biomass for Energy, Friends of the Earth UK 2 (Aug. 2006), https://friendsoftheearth.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/palm_oil_biofuel_position.pdf

[9] Id.

[10] See generally Nils Hermann Ranum, Norway Bans Palm Oil-Based Biofuel in its Public Procurement, Regnskogfondet (June 13, 2017), https://www.regnskog.no/en/news/norway-bans-palm-oil-based-biofuel-in-its-public-procurement.

[11] Id.

[12] Andrew Allen, Norway Bans Palm Oil Procurement, CIPS (June 19, 2017), https://www.cips.org/supply-management/news/2017/june/norway-bans-palm-oil-procurement/.

[13] Id.

[14] Cayambe, Biofuel Palm Oil Ban ‘Has Little Impact on Reducing Deforestation’, Biofuels International (Oct. 16, 2017), https://biofuels-news.com/display_news/13019/biofuel_palm_oil_ban_has_little_impact_on_reducing_deforestation/.

[15] See generally Sybille de La Hamaide, France to Restrict Use of Palm Oil in Biofuels: Minister, Reuters (July 6, 2017 6:44 AM), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-biodiesel/france-to-restrict-use-of-palm-oil-in-biofuels-minister-idUSKBN19R1AZ.

[16] Id.

[17] New Europe Online, Parliament members Demand Tough New Measures to Tackle Deforestations and Unsustainable Palm Oil Production, New Europe (April 4, 2017 3:39 PM), https://www.neweurope.eu/article/meps-call-strict-rules-palm-oil-entering-eu-market/; See also  Cayambe, supra note 14.  

[18] New Europe Online, supra note 17. 

[19] Bernadette Christini Munthe, et. al., Under EU Attack, Top Palm Oil Producers Rethink Trade Strategy, Reuters (Sept. 12, 2017, 7:37

PM), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-indonesia-malaysia-palmoil/under-eu-attack-top-palm-oil-producers-rethink-trade-strategy-idUSKCN1BN367.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Lauren Gerard, Top 5 Palm Oil Producing Countries and Making Sustainability a Key Focus in 2017, BizVibe Blog (Oct. 13), https://www.bizvibe.com/blog/top-5-palm-oil-producing-countries/.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Jaboury Ghazoul, Banning Oil Palm Block Good Practices, Phys Org (Oct. 13, 2017), https://phys.org/news/2017-10-oil-palm-blocks-good.html.

[28] Id.

[29] Reuters Staff, Malaysia, Indonesia say EU Palm Resolution Will Affect Millions, Reuters (Nov. 22, 2107 4:58 AM), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-indonesia-malaysia-palmoil/malaysia-indonesia-say-eu-palm-resolution-will-affect-millions-idUSKBN1DM107.

[30] Id.

[31] Erwida Maulia, Indonesia and Malaysia Fire Back at the EU Over Palm Oil, Nikkei Asian Review (Nov. 23, 2017, 10:00 AM), https://asia.nikkei.com/magazine/20171123/Politics-Economy/Indonesia-and-Malaysia-fire-back-at-the-EU-over-palm-oil.

[32] Id.

[33] Natasha Longo, 3 Reasons to Stay Away From Any Kind of Palm Fruit Oil and Why Coconut Oil Will Always as Be Superior, Truth Theory (Jan. 17, 2014), https://truththeory.com/2014/01/17/3-reasons-to-stay-away-from-any-kind-of-palm-fruit-oil-and-why-coconut-oil-will-always-be-superior/.