> If you’re anything like us, you’ve probably heard about the massive amounts of deforestation caused by palm oil farming. You may be running to your cupboards to expose the products causing this destruction.. but we’re here to tell you that a lot of environmental research does not advocate a full-on boycott of palm oil, like many online sources suggest. So before you empty out your cupboards, we have a few alternatives for you.

Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil made from palm trees that can be found in Africa, Asia, North & South America and are grown on plantations. Areas of the rainforest are destroyed to make space for these large plantations. The plantations can lead to animals like orangutans losing their homes as it destroys natural habitats and disrupts ecosystems in the process. Greenpeace reports that an area the size of a football pitch is lost every 25 seconds due to deforestation, with global production of palm oil doubling between 2000-2012.
Rightly, this has caused a huge wave of reaction online, with thousands vowing to boycott palm oil and people rushing to their cupboards to clear out all associated products. But it’s near impossible to avoid - it’s the world's most widely consumed vegetable oil, said to be found in 50% of supermarket products, from bread, cakes and ice cream, to cleaning products, cosmetics and many more. 

So is an outright boycott the answer?

Companies like Lush have spoken out about why an outright boycott on palm oil is not the answer. Palm can be produced sustainably, and banning it is not the answer. In reality, it should never be talked about in isolation, because there's a range of factors that are causing mass deforestation - therefore our reactions should cover a range of lifestyle changes not just things that are easy to swap. We can’t vow to swap to palm free shampoo and peanut butter when livestock is just as huge of a cause of deforestation. One of the main causes of deforestation is conversion of land for pasture to raise livestock, with cattle ranching reportedly being responsible for 70% of deforestation in the Amazon… something conveniently excluded from anti-deforestation conversations.

It makes logical sense to want to boycott a product, however it doesn't help to reduce deforestation or human rights violations because the real problem isn’t palm oil itself, but the demand for it. The mass demand for cheap products causes the need for an extensive amount of land. Boycotting palm oil means it's only a matter of time before producers will simply replace it with another ingredient, and in most cases this will just be another type of oil.

This switch would most likely require even more land because palm oil is actually one of the most efficient and sustainable types of oil - 1 hectare produces about 3.6 tonnes of palm oil in comparison to 1 hectare of sunflowers which only produces 0.7 tonnes of oil. Add to this the fact that other types of oil are also a lot more polluting as their cultivation requires chemical fertilizers, pesticides or cause the production of toxic waste as a by-product (this is the case with olive oil!)... now palm oil is sounding really quite appealing.
But all hope is not lost - the answer just isn’t boycotting palm oil. Here are 3 things you can do instead:

  1. Consume less - really this is the only answer. Without a reduction in consumer demand for products, deforestation will continue to be validated by excessive demand. The only way to end it is to reduce our own ecological footprints by buying less, and paying attention to how and where things are made.
  2. Ask supermarkets to implement stricter rules and regulations surrounding sustainable palm oil production.  The palm oil industry is not about to die out - no matter how many shares a video of sad orangutans gets on Facebook. It’s essential we keep advocating for companies to farm palm oil sustainably -  an approach pushed by the Sumatran Orangutan Society.
  3. Support companies who only use palm oil certified under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) whose regulations ensure confidence that areas of high conservation value have been preserved, and local communities have been supported as well as making sure plantation managers are implementing best practices. Or if you want to gradually move your demand away from products that rely on palm check out Ethical Consumer’s list of palm oil free products here.  
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Meg Prosser

Writer’s Bio: Meg is a Junior Digital Associate at Tearfund, studying for MSc Poverty, Inequality and Development.

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