The Palm Oil Research Problem

The palm oil tree has been cultivated by humans for centuries and is currently used heavily in the global energy, food and cosmetics industries. Take a look and see if you can guess which products may contain palm oil: shampoo, pizza, automotive fuel, margarine, detergent, lipstick, ice cream, chocolate, and instant noodles. If you guessed all of the above, you are correct; if not, you’re surely not alone, it is difficult for the average consumer to pick out which common products contain palm oil.

Furthermore, it is difficult to identify palm oil in ingredient labels, as it can be listed under several different names. According to the WWF and The Philadelphia Zoo, labels can contain names as vague as vegetable oil or sodium laureth sulfate, and as obscure as Elaeis guineensis (the scientific name of the African oil palm) and sodium kernelate. If identifying palm oil containing products wasn’t difficult enough, in many cases it is nearly impossible for the average consumer to be certain whether the palm oil they are consuming was harvested sustainably.

Fitzherbert et al. of the Zoological Society of London noted a concerning trend in their 2008 Trends in Ecology & Evolution article: not only is palm oil highly prevalent, but the market for palm oil is growing rapidly. The biggest suppliers of palm oil are Malaysia and Indonesia (accounting for a large majority of production), which also happen to hold 80% of Southeast Asia’s remaining forest. Southeast Asia in turn “harbours 11% of the world’s remaining tropical forests,” according to a Nature article by Drs. Koh and Wilcove at Princeton University. In the period from 1990 to 2005, several million hectares of this forest was lost to palm oil cultivation alone.

 Palm Oil Fruit Harvest by Craig Morey. Licensed under CC ShareAlike

Expansion of palm oil cultivation threatens the rich biomes, and the myriad species which live in these forests. In addition, deforestation of this region has major implications for climate change, especially as a result of the burning of peat bogs.

All things considered, you might hope that scientists in the field of palm oil sustainability would be rapidly researching means of reducing the impact of palm oil cultivation. Indeed, research in the field has grown exponentially (“11 in 2004 to 713 by 2013”). However, this year the director of the UTM Palm Oil Research Center in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, Dr. Sune Hansen, and his team have published a report which criticizes the current trends in sustainable palm oil research. Their analysis of scientific publications on this subject revealed that most research is focused on the development of novel technologies and usages for byproducts of harvest (known as palm oil residues) rather than the socioeconomics of the palm oil trade, land use, and conservation. The authors note that “the one-sided approach [to research] appears at odds with the major sustainability issues raised about palm oil.”

I wish to note the fact that palm oil cultivation is not a monstrous and environmentally destructive industry. In fact, sustainable palm oil cultivation fuels the economies of harvesting countries, geopolitically empowering their citizenry, in addition to providing a valuable product. However, consumers deserve to be empowered to choose sustainably sourced oils.

I believe cultivators and manufacturers have an obligation to both condemn further destruction of rainforest, and to encourage scientific research on under-represented topics in palm oil sustainability. I contacted Dr. Hansen on this subject, and he concurs:

I do believe that manufacturers have a moral obligation to conduct or sponsor research on the topics you mention, but I’m afraid setting up formal policies on something like that would be very difficult… The only way I see is for the palm oil industry itself – supported by other stakeholders – to set up internal initiatives or incentives for producers and manufacturers to work closely with academia in ensuring sustainable development of the industry.

Consumers can get involved by advocating for sustainability research, and encouraging manufacturers who have committed towards the use of sustainable palm oil. Consider reaching out to major manufacturers through this Houston Zoo campaign, or taking a look at the Union of Concerned Scientist’s Palm Oil Scorecard for more information on the sustainability of major manufacturers.


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