Palm Oil: A Hot Commodity

Did you know that an key ingredient in many of the products Americans use every day is responsible for about half of the deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia? Palm oil is present in everything from skin cream, to toothpaste, soap, fuel, to all kinds of food. This ingredient has become particularly popular in foods as food manufacturers work to reduce their use of oils high in trans-fat. Another driver in the increased demand for palm oil is the explosion of the biodiesel market over the last decade. As the demand for palm oil has increased, the number of plantations has grown. Palm oil is grown all over the tropics, but the highest density of plantations are in the forests of Southeast Asia.

The forests of Southeast Asia are teaming with species found nowhere else in the world: butterflies, orchids and hardwood trees, mammals including orangutans. The forest floor is rich in peat, a soil extremely rich in carbon stores. Preserving these forests is critical to protecting our planet’s biodiversity and slowing global warming. Converting forests into oil palm plantations releases these carbon stores.

In an effort to mitigate deforestation, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil certifies plantations that adhere to environmental and social standards. One of the challenges facing the certified palm oil market is only 10% of certified palm oil has been sold to buyers willing to buy a premium.

While most of the world turned its eyes to Copenhagen for the UN Climate Talks, a few hundred stake holders met in Malaysia to discuss the fate of palm oil and climate change. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil met again to discuss the incorporation of reductions in emissions into the principles and criteria of the RSPO, so that only operations reducing emissions could get certified. Growers feel the palm oil industry is being unfairly pressured into this when no other food production sector has to do so. Others feel palm oil could not be considered sustainable if it does not ensure that its production is not contributing to climate change.

In the final day of the meeting a compromise was reached. While growers will not be required to reduce their emissions as a part of the certification process, voluntary emission reduction efforts are encouraged among growers, producers, and buyers of palm oil. We at Forest Justice believe that emissions reductions should be a requirement of palm oil certification, however, we are encrouaged by the progress made by the RSPO meetings. Our hope is that the farmers who voluntarily reduce their impact on forests will demonstrate to the rest of the industry that they can do so without hurting their profits.

What can you do? Pay attention to the ingredients in the products you are buying and look for alternatives

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