The Problem with Palm Oil

Palm Oil is a Huge Problem – For Everyone. Palm oil cultivation is the leading cause of deforestation in many tropical countries. It’s also a major human rights issue, contributing to the displacement of indigenous people who live on land desirable for palm cultivation. And of course, it’s also destroying the habitat of native plants and animals, and bringing Orangutans in Indonesia to the brink of extinction.

Many vegans have expressed a belief that palm oil is not vegan. But I think this is misleading – particularly for new vegans. I believe palm oil is a serious problem, and one that should be addressed by raising awareness. We should also seek out better alternatives wherever possible, and encourage the scientists who are working on replacements. But a boycott – particularly at this time – is very unlikely to work. Further, it may not even be the right path from a purely moral point of view, as halting production of a leading export in the developing world may have serious fallout if a boycott were somehow successful.

Is Palm Oil Vegan?

First of all, of course palm oil is vegan. It comes from a plant and is therefore not animal based, and is therefore vegan. Last I checked, veganism was about avoiding animal exploitation, not perfection. So let’s stop making that confusion right now.

Is palm oil perfect? Absolutely not. Virtually every product you buy, whether it be wheat, fruit, or vegetables, contains a degree of associated animal exploitation. This includes veganic production, which is likely best in this regard, but still, veganic wheat still needs protection against animals like rats that would love to eat it. Again, we must return to the original definition of the vegan society which was avoiding animal exploitation “as far as is practicable or possible.”

Palm oil does bring with it a host of problems. The palms that produce palm oil are primarily grown in tropical regions, and the land on which it is grown is reclaimed from the rainforest. This has caused a host of issues, including deforestation, habitat loss, and even genocide.

Should vegans buy palm oil? Maybe not, although I don’t think the moral case is as clear as many believe. Is a boycott likely to work in this case? Very unlikely.

High Demand

Ever since scientists discovered the dangers of trans fats, demand for palm oil has been on the rise.

For much of the 20th century, hydrogenated oil satisfied consumer demand for shelf-stable fats in packaged and prepared goods.

Then we started to learn about the health dangers of the trans fats found in hydrogenated oils. Very quickly, palm oil stepped in to pick up the slack. Unlike most vegetable oils, palm oil is naturally high in saturated fat that renders it solid at room temperature.

As wealth has grown around the world, so too has demand for packaged food. Anyone advocating a boycott must consider the unlikelihood of successfully challenging a profitable global industry that is essential for food safety. Unless people magically give up packaged food (or invent a viable, affordable alternative), it won’t work.

Palm is Productive and Profitable

Palm oil is immensely profitable. Even in less than ideal settings, these palms are the most productive oil seeds on earth, producing 1 ton of oil per .26 hectares of land, in comparison with soy (1 ton per 2.22 hectares), sunflower (1 ton per 2 hectares) or canola (1 ton per 1.52 hectares)(source).

What about coconut?

A lot of people buy products made with coconut oil instead. I think this is a poor strategy for a number of reasons.

Firstly, coconut farming is less profitable. As Time magazine reports, virtually all coconuts are harvested by hand by labourers paid pitifully poor wages. And this is unlikely to improve, even as demand for coconut oil increases.

One of the major reasons for this is that coconuts produce far less oil than coconut palms do. And consumers don’t want to pay substantially more for coconut oil.

Why a Boycott Won’t Work

As I mention in the video, boycotts generally require excellent strategy with a specific target (ideally a single company), together with strong public sentiment and economic viability.

Most palm oil boycotts aim either at convincing consumers to purchase sustainable palm oil, or to avoid palm oil altogether. The first strategy is more doable: organizations such as RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) exist for precisely this purpose, and it’s having some success even in regions more resistant to halting deforestation. While there are legitimate concerns about RSPO’s effectiveness, I see little value in arguing that because an approach is imperfect, it not worth pursuing.

An outright boycott is less likely to be successful (if the goal is halting palm oil production). For one thing, Indonesia and Malaysia produce about 85% of the world’s palm oil, and when prices drop (say, in response to a boycott), the Indonesia actually reduces export taxes to zero to keep prices up:

When palm oil prices are higher than $750 the tax will fluctuate between 7.5%-22.5%. When prices are lower than $750 for a period of 3 weeks export tax goes to 0%. The $750 is determined by looking at the average prices in Jakarta, Rotterdam and Kuala Lumpur. At the end of 2014 the Indonesian government decided to cut the tax rate to 0% as a reaction to the fall in prices of other vegetable oils as well as fossil fuels. By cutting the tax rate Indonesian palm oil prices became more competitive on the international market. The influence of these measures on the market is reported by PORAM (Palm Oil Refiners Association Malaysia) which reports have the same influence on the market that the USDA reports have on the Oilseed markets (source)

With the lions’ share of oil coming from this region, it’s unlikely a boycott would have much affect unless it was a worldwide embargo.

Furthermore, a full boycott is not economically viable (at least not yet). No alternative to palm oil can begin to approach its level of affordability. And as we discussed earlier, as global wealth grows, the developing world is increasing their consumption of packaged foods. If global prices do drop, it will only increase consumption in places where packaged goods are in demand. As the Indonesia example demonstrates, there is little incentive not to engage in a “race to the bottom” against other producers.

One has only to look at the recent glut of petroleum on the world market in order to realize how difficult it is to convince producers to cut back on resource extraction in the face of falling prices.

Of course, some producers are exceptionally good at managing their supply in response to market realities. They are called monopolies. The diamond industry is an excellent example. However, most industries have difficulty pulling this off, even with the benefit of groups like OPEC.

Possible Solutions

While I don’t think a boycott is likely to be effective, if the laws of physics don’t prevent it, problems are soluble. Fortunately, our knowledge of food science is always improving, and it’s very possible that we will produce a viable solution.

With good management, palm oil productivity can be massively increased. Under ideal settings, 8 tons of oil per hectare can be grown, whereas 3.3 tons per hectare is the current average.

And that’s just proper agricultural methods. Modifications to the seeds themselves can boost yield by as much as 30%.

Unfortunately, boycotting science seems to work a lot better than the palm oil boycott. Ecover, a green cleaning company, was working on edited algae that produced oil high in palmitic acid (found in palm oil). It seems like an ideal solution, but was immediately rejected by their small, GMO-wary consumer base. 

Let’s hope that a viable, affordable alternative is developed. Until that time, I will cook with canola oil whenever possible and avoid packaged foods (something we all should probably be doing anyway!). And I will encourage the development of alternatives. But I don’t think that an all-out boycott is the best response to the problems with palm oil.

A Note on the Morality of the Palm Oil Boycott

It isn’t just that I think a palm oil boycott would be ineffective. I’m also concerned a boycott is morally wrong. We want to stop deforestation – not harm the livelihoods of people in the developing world who are dependent on this crop in order to make a living. And as tragic as the destruction of the rainforest is, I believe there is a great deal of paternalism wrapped up in the argument that these forests are the “lungs of the planet” and must be preserved at all costs (costs which, quite frankly, will be borne disproportionately by the people who live there).

When people are emerging from poverty, and boycotting their chief export may not be the best way to encourage reform.

palm oil fruit chontoduro colombia

The fruit of the oil palm is known as “Chontoduro” in Colombia, and it’s a very popular food, particularly in the city of Cali. It tastes (to me) like butternut or acorn squash and is high in Omega 3 fatty acids.

I see no difference between this argument and those who demand that people in developing nations must stop burning fossil fuels, in spite of the fact that the nations of the global north became wealthy through exploiting natural resources. It is a disproportionate and selfish argument that privileges part of humanity (the west) at the expense of the rest.

According to many, the people of these nations are uniquely responsible for preserving their resources and saving endangered species. We are asked to carefully ignore the fact that the developed world has driven countless species to extinction. It’s a “do as I say, not as I do” argument that I find extremely distasteful. Perhaps we need to learn more about the needs of the people we’re preaching at. If we want to arrive at a suitable compromise, boycotts are neither helpful nor effective.


Sources: For more information on why boycotts sometimes work (and often do not) I’d recommend the Freakonomics Podcast Episode “Do Boycotts Work” Available here

What do you think? Join the conversation!

%d bloggers like this: