Until recently I thought I understood the problem with palm oil. I thought palm oil meant unethical agricultural practices causing the destruction of equatorial rainforests, driving Orangutans to extinction and contributing significantly to climate change. I believed that products where palm oil was listed as an ingredient are worse than those where palm oil is not listed as an ingredient. I understood that environment groups advocated boycotting manufacturers that use palm oil until they substituted with an alternative.
And then I visited Melbourne Zoo where I listened to a talk about the plight of Orangutans and learnt a few things which surprised me. I asked a few more questions and did a bit of desktop research, and this is what I discovered:
- Switching to a different vegetable oil isn’t a realistic solution. Oil palms have much greater yields than alternatives, – up to ten times as much palm oil can be produced on a hectare of land as other vegetable oils, such as soya or rapeseed. Palm oil is used in approximately 50% of supermarket products in Australia, and substituting it would require vastly more land – not a good option in a planet already struggling to produce enough food for the ballooning population. Furthermore, palm oil production provides livelihoods for many people in the world’s poorest areas.
- As a result of the above, the Roundtable for the Sustainable Production of Palm Oil was initiated to improve the ethics of the palm oil industry, and developed a set of sustainable and social standards which need to be met for palm oil to be labeled “Certified Sustainable Palm Oil” (CSPO). There is a general agreement that it is better to encourage the whole supply chain to opt for CSPO than to substitute for other vegetable oils. It is also widely accepted that boycotting non-sustainable palm oil has undesirable side-effects and should not be used as a tactic.
- Listing palm oil in the ingredients can be a positive sign. In Australia, there is no requirement to state the exact oil used, and very often “vegetable oil” is indeed palm oil. Explicitly stating use of palm oil may be an indication of company transparency. Furthermore, even if the palm oil is Certified Sustainable Palm Oil, this is rarely indicated on the product and the only way to check is by contacting the company directly. Zoos Victoria (and many others) are currently campaigning to have palm oil labelling on all product, and you can add your name to the petition by clicking here.
- There is enough CSPO produced to meet global palm oil demands, so all products could, and should, contain 100% CSPO. If enough customers write to a company asking them about their source of palm oil and requesting them to switch to CSPO this can make a difference. Manufacturers, retailers etc often need to know their customers are concerned before they will adopt new standards.
So, do these discoveries make my shopping trips easier or more complicated? Previously I tried to avoid everything containing palm oil, but this was becoming almost impossible anyway due to its increasing dominance in the marketplace. Now that I realise many products citing ‘vegetable oil’ actually contain palm oil, and many that contain palm oil actually contain Certified Sustainable Palm Oil without being labeled as such, there seems little point in making purchasing decisions based on the presence or absence of this ingredient. Moreover, the advice to communicate with, rather than boycott, companies using non-sustainable palm oil made me realize I would have to rethink how to use my consumer muscle more effectively.
Whilst at Melbourne Zoo I dutifully signed my name on their Palm Oil petitions. But it occurred to me that I could make more of a difference by bringing the campaign ’home’ to the Jewish Community. We are the target market for Kosher food products and so we should be able, as a community, to persuade Kosher manufacturers to switch to 100% CSPO. As a first step I decided to investigate palm oil use by major kosher food manufacturers around the world. I emailed five companies – in Israel, the USA, Canada, the UK and Australia and asked the question “ I notice that many of your products contain palm oil. Are you a member of the RSPO and do you use Certified Sustainable Palm Oil?” I eagerly wait their responses.