A report published last week by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) highlighted the way that the palm oil industry is encroaching on rainforest and endangering biodiversity.
However the IUCN also highlighted the little-reported point that alternative oil crops, such as soy, corn and rapeseed, require up to nine times as much land as palm. Palm oil provides a third of the world’s vegetable oil, from 10% of the land used for all oil crops. Switching to alternative crops could result in the destruction of wild habitat in other parts of the world, such as Brazil and Argentina.
The director general of the IUCN told The Guardian, “When you consider the disastrous impacts of palm oil on biodiversity from a global perspective, there are no simple solutions. If we ban or boycott it, other, more land-hungry oils will likely take its place.”
The IUCN report’s lead author added, “Palm oil is decimating south-east Asia’s rich diversity of species as it eats into swaths of tropical forest.” But, quoting US writer HL Mencken, he said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
The answer is to not to ban palm oil, but to make its production more sustainable. That is easy to say and difficult to do. Indeed, the IUCN report criticised current sustainability efforts, arguing that certified palm oil is little better than non-certified palm oil.
A spokeswoman for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which certifies almost 20% of all palm oil, disagreed. She told The Guardian that, “While we acknowledge that the certification system is not perfect, it has made a real contribution against deforestation.” She added that the RSPO is currently strengthening its standards.
So here we have two of the ten factors that Hans Gosling highlighted in his recent book Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world—and why things are better than you think. First, things are more complicated than they seem. Second, they are not perfect, but they are getting better.
An example of that second point can be found in the slowdown of soybean expansion in the Amazon basin following a moratorium by trading and food companies on purchases of soybeans from newly deforested land. The annual rate of deforestation for soybeans in monitored municipalities has fallen 85 percent since 2008 and has accounted for only 1.2 percent of total cutting in the Amazon region in the period.
According to Greenpeace, the moratorium shows that zero deforestation is a possible pledge, and that similar protection should be expanded to other areas facing destruction.
The problem, of course, is that we still have to feed the world’s growing population. Agricultural expansion is the single largest driver of biodiversity loss, and it makes sense on a global scale to increase yields from existing areas rather than expand into new areas. This can be done by improving seeds, breeds and processes, or by planting more efficient crops.
As the IUCN study admits, a hectare of palm oil trees produces roughly 4,000 kg of oil per year, while a hectare of soybeans produces only 475 kg. (Cynics might argue that it is this difference in yields, and hence costs, that is driving the western world’s anti-palm oil lobby, not concern over biodiversity loss.)
Looking at different crops in terms of calories, palm is one of the most efficient at 3,520 calories per square metre, just behind sugar beet at 3,652 calories per square metres, but ahead of sugarcane at 2,781 calories. So if you really needed to feed the world, you would cover the planet with those three crops.
Of course nothing is that simple. First, calories alone are not enough: the body also needs proteins, vitamins, fibre and micronutrients. (Although my kids might disagree, you cannot live on Nutella alone.) Second, those three crops aren’t suitable for all climates; they don’t grow everywhere. Third, as the Irish potato famine showed us, monoculture can be extremely risky.
However there is a fourth issue here: fairness. The IUCN estimates the total area of industrial scale palm oil plantations at 18.7m hectares, with smallholder plantations taking the total to 25m hectares. This means that smallholder farmers grow about one quarter of all palm oil. Those smallholder farmers are no different from any of us; they are simply looking to provide for their families and ensure a better future for their children. It is difficult to tell them that they can’t do that.
In his book, Hans Gosling warns against another human instinct: to always blame someone when something goes wrong. Just as polar bears have become the totem of global warming, orang utans have become the totem of all that is wrong with palm oil. But unlike polar bears, whose numbers are increasing, Borneo’s orang utan population has fallen by an estimated 150,000 in the past 16 years.
The IUCN estimates that most of that decline has been caused by hunting, rather than through habitat loss as a result of agricultural encroachment. (There is an argument that agricultural expansion is bringing humans into closer contact with wildlife, and and that it is this that has lead to an increase in hunting.)
All in all, if you were to ask your friends and neighbours why orang utans are dying out, they will blame palm oil. If the palm oil industry wants to win back the hearts and minds of the world’s consumers, they will need to work with the local population to reverse that decline in the orang utan population.
As one of the coauthors of the IUCN report said, “We need to work with people to help them understand that orang utans are not dangerous and that it’s illegal to kill them. We know this decline has been largely due to hunting, and if we can turn that around, these orang utans could, over a long period, bounce back. When you lost the habitat, it’s gone forever, but the forests are still there. If we can stop the hunting and killing, we can reverse the trend.”
The conclusion has to be that boycotting palm oil is not a solution to the problem of biodiversity loss; it may in fact displace and aggravate it. The only (horribly complex) solution is to work with bodies such as the RSPO to improve sustainability, to help smallholder families lead better lives without cutting down virgin forest, and to educate the local population not to kill protected wildlife. The solutions are as difficult as the problems are complex, but they are nonetheless urgent.
Images from Pixabay under creative commons