Sustainable palm oil industry in Sabah, Malaysia, 2015. Wikimedia Commons.
It all seems like a simple matter. To save the orangutans of the tropical rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra from certain extinction, all we need to do is boycott any product that contains palm oil and its derivatives. Or at least that’s the main gist of a banned Christmas-season advertisement from the United Kingdom that went viral in recent weeks. It features, in contrast to a human child in the comfort and safety of her family home, a baby orangutan that seeks refuge in the humans’ home from the horrors that have befallen its own home due to the deforestation caused by palm oil plantations.
Much as the baby-orangutan narrative tugs at our heartstrings, the truth is more complicated. Presently, the drive to boycott palm oil is rooted in the concern that links palm oil production to the destruction of rainforests and the assumption that palm oil is irredeemably harmful to the environment. As a result, the environmentally mindful has no choice but to cut off consumption of palm oil. In Europe, this political stance has resulted in the European Parliament voting to ban the use of palm oil in all European biofuels by 2020. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the European Commission, which enforces European legislation and implements policies, has yet to specify policies regarding the ban.
However, those concerned with the environment should avoid the dogmatism that is increasingly apparent in the palm oil boycott. Saving the environment does not just depend on militating against ostensibly unsustainable palm oil. This is the thrust of Spotlight’s first article this week by academics Jake Bicknell, Eleanor Slade and Matthew Struebig that first appeared on The Conversation. The authors argue that focusing on expanding consumption of certified sustainable products, including verifiably wildlife-friendly palm oil, makes more sense in the long term for the environment.
Meanwhile, this week’s second Spotlight article by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry researchers centers on other concerns that derive from palm oil production in Indonesia. Most of the world’s palm oil supply originate from Indonesia and Malaysia. In their article, the researchers trace the difficulties that oil palm smallholding planters face in replanting oil palms, an important facet in rendering palm oil more environmentally friendly. Another side of the problem is, unfortunately, self-contradictory, poorly implemented government policies.
From the safe distance of a supermarket aisle in a western metropolis, shoppers concerned with the environment may find the boycott-palm-oil message simple and effective. Yet, concern for the environment that remains untethered to reality is not enough. We have a well-evidenced path forward regarding a commodity that half the world’s population uses in food: certified sustainable palm oil. However, those shoppers now have another question to consider: Are they willing to pay a bit more for a greener palm oil?