What's your approach to palm oil when grocery shopping?

Palm oil is highly controversial, being linked to many environmental, social and ethical concerns. With it being found in so many foods, it’s difficult to know what the best approach is when shopping.

On one hand, palm oil is seen as causing deforestation and endangering many species including orangutans, with palm oil plantations being linked to 47% of deforestation in Malaysia and 16% of deforestation in Indonesia between 1972 and 2015 (source).

On the other hand, palm oil accounted for only 0.2% of global deforestation between 2000 and 2013 (source). With yields several times higher than other oil crops, might it be better to use palm oil than use even more land to grow other oils? Is palm oil being unfairly vilified?

While “sustainable” palm oil is available through various schemes such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, there remains controversy over the extent to which these schemes truly make a difference as long as a market remains for non-certified palm oil.

Personally, I find this issue difficult as many versions of the vegan products I use contain palm oil, for example margarine. If a palm-oil free version is available then I will usually choose that; if not, then I seek out options that say their palm oil is sustainable. However, I’m not entirely satisfied with this approach and would love to hear other people’s thoughts.

How do you approach the issue of palm oil when shopping? Do you avoid all palm oil? Do you seek options with “sustainable” palm oil? Do you take some other approach?

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I take the “avoid where possible” approach. Although, when also feeding children, food shopping is more complex.

I am more worried though about school-provided food and anything purchased in restaurants and cafes. Wanting to support local businesses, but with so little transparency, there is a long long way to go

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It’s so difficult, isn’t it. I did go through a phase of trying to avoid it altogether, then read an article suggesting this may be misguided as palm-oil free products often substitute other oils which are potentially more environmentally damaging (as mentioned in the original post – palm oil being a very efficient crop). I wonder whether focussing too much on palm oil specifically is misguided: it’s not palm oil per se that is problematic but the way in which it is produced; in this it is symptomatic of far wider food system problems.

My current approach: I put a lot more thought into each purchase, rather than adopting a blanket “avoid” strategy. E.g. with peanut butter I tend to go for Meridian as it’s 100% peanuts, so no palm oil but no other questionable oils substituted. With other products I might go with a version containing palm oil if it looks like the alternative is potentially as bad/worse. I do make some effort to research companies’ palm oil sourcing policies, but have little faith in this – am well aware that “sustainable palm oil” certification means little.

More broadly, I do also attempt to eat less “processed” food and cook as much as possible from scratch, for greater certainty/control over what goes into my food and where it comes from – which helps reduce palm oil alongside other things. But I’m not making myself out to be some kind of saint/biscuits are delicious/sometimes there isn’t time. On a more serious note, I’m horribly aware that the steps I take myself are more about soothing my own conscience than effecting broader change. An awful lot of people don’t have the resources (including time) to shop and eat more sustainably and I’m uncomfortably aware of that – it’s important not to preach or feel virtuous about these kinds of things. I think that although more robust certification schemes for sustainable palm oil could be helpful in a small way, it’s yet another problem that can only be meaningfully addressed by far-reaching system change rather than individual action.

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I think that there are a few fundamental things that are important to understand, which then inform what the best solutions are likely to be.

  • As truly awful as it is, what has happened in the past can’t be changed. What matters most for forests, orangutans, etc, is how do we stop any further deforestation from taking place, and restore as much as we can as fast as we can.

  • To do that, we actually have to do the hard work of really seeking to understand systems and causality – why things happen as they do – so that we can design specific interventions to change the way systems operate. We have to be action-orientated about solutions – not just angry (which is an entirely understandable emotion to feel about the destruction of nature, but also, is not the solution).

  • No one understands in fine detail, the whole system from forest to the product on someone’s shelf and the (often perfectly logical local) reasons why many different people and organisations at every stage do the things that they do. But it’s often these fine or misunderstood details that ultimately matter to unlocking change. This is why finger-pointing generally isn’t very useful. We have to work together and engage to fully understand each other’s context and incentives at play, how and why systems work as they do, and then how we can create new incentives that change them.

  • At the most fundamental level, stopping deforestation is a local issue. Why do landowners or users choose to deforest, or not? And what can be done to change these decisions and actions? What are the incentives, and how can they be changed? To do that, you have to start by thinking at the local level and about the specific people/organisations in those landscapes, and countries, and then work backwards to understand how larger-scale and often global dynamics might help to affect this. But as a general rule, the further away you are from a place in terms of time, space, and supply chain length, the harder it is to affect. And the smaller you are, the less leverage you have. So the only way you can really have a significant impact is to collaborate with others to aggregate your resources and influence and to attack these kinds of problems from multiple angles and perspectives.

  • An important part of this is recognising that you have to protect people to protect nature. Sustainable development, human rights, and poverty alleviation are preconditions to the long-term conservation of nature. Poor people in developing countries have every right to want to have sufficient nutritious food to eat, access to healthcare, secure homes, and for their children to go to school. And often, the economic resources at their disposal – particularly in rural areas – are natural capital. If it comes to a choice between a tree and someone’s childrens’ wellbeing, the children will always win – understandably.

  • What this means is if say palm oil didn’t exist, would people stop needing to grow food and produce, manufacture, and trade goods to make a living. Or countries forgo the opportunity to economically develop to provide better services to their populations. Absolutely not. They would instead just use the land for some other economic purpose instead – which may not be any better (see below).

  • However, it is also true that poor governance, weak laws, corruption, ineffective institutions and justice systems, and political movements matter enormously in countries where palm oil and other commodities are produced. And that this can often drive needless environmental destruction, human rights abuses, and impoverishment, for the private gain of those in power – often facilitated by shady business practices. Solutions that don’t also take these dynamics into account, will only ever be partial.

  • What this all point to is that stopping commodity-driven deforestation does not have simple silver bullet solutions. Instead, only a mosaic of different solutions that changes the incentives at every part of the system, and for all people and organisations that are a part of it, will ultimately deliver the local changes in forest landscapes, that protect both people and nature. This is also why these problems are so difficult and intractable – but not impossible.

  • When it comes to palm oil, it’s important to understand that palm oil is just one particular type and source of vegetable oil and fats. We need to think of it as part of the global oil system (a subset of the global food system). In much the same way that we have come to think of the supply of protein as a particular sub-set of the food system (e.g. with regard to the environmental impacts of diets).

  • Oils and fats are a crucial part of food and nutrition. Yes, there is some scope to use less (e.g. eating less junk food) and there are places where alternative oils/fats make sense to substitute. And it’s certainly true that their direct use as fuel isn’t a net benefit for the environment. But fundamentally, we need vegetable oils and fats for cooking and as food and feed ingredients. The only question is which ones to use?

  • Importantly, the global demand for vegetable oil is roughly expected to double in the coming 40-50 years. Given that, the question then is how do we produce the oil the world needs without destroying the remaining natural land? The answer is that you simply can’t do it without palm oil.

  • As compared to other vegetable oils. It already provides 40% of global oil on around 6% of land devoted to oil crops, and that’s because it’s 4-10 times more productive per acre than other oil crops. And the newest palm trees with the best genetics can be much more productive than this. This means that replacing palm oil with other oil crops will require much more land to produce the alternative oil that it is substituted with. Which according to IUCN and other studies, may result in more, not less clearance of ecosystems and carbon emissions.

  • Additionally, not all types of vegetable oil are equal. Different types of oils and fats have different functional properties. Palm oil and palm kernel oil have a wide range of fats that can be turned to many different purposes through refinement and fractionation and other processing. What this means though, is that you can’t just replace all palm oil with rapeseed oil, or similar. Because it doesn’t have equivalent functional properties. For certain types of fat – the ones that are solid at room temperatures – the alternatives are not sufficiently abundant. Shea oil is from wild trees and so limited. Others like Mango kernel oil, are also in short supply and are by-products of other industries. And Coconut oil is also produced in tropical regions and is far less productive than palm oil – requiring even more land.

For more on this see:

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-020-0487-8

  • So the conclusion to draw is that we need palm oil. We would be worse off if we didn’t have it as a crop. And if it isn’t palmed oil, it would be something else in its place which may well be worse. The solution isn’t to boycott or stop using it. The only viable long-term solution is to make its production sustainable (and that of other agri-commodities in forest landscapes) – which also means making sure that people in forests landscapes where it is grown can have good livelihoods without clearing more land. And of course, improving government policy, strengthening institutions, tackling corruption and cleaning up business practices.

  • The good news about that is that doing that – while difficult – is still completely possible. We can produce all the palm oil the world needs without clearing any more land. Increased production can be achieved through improved productivity on existing land (particularly for smallholders to produce ~40% of all palm oil), and through expansion onto land that’s already been cleared. Low productivity areas of plantations can be taken out of production to create wildlife refuges. And wildlife corridors can be put back into landscapes. Better agricultural practices can reduce harm and can also increase levels of biodiversity within farmed landscapes (and support improved livelihoods). This is a point widely agreed on by almost all environmental NGOs and academic researchers.

  • We have no choice. This is what we have to work hard to achieve. Because all of the alternatives are worse. The question then is how?

  • The answer to this is also very complex, and perhaps I’ll do another post on that. Land use policy in producer countries to protect primary and secondary forests is crucial. As is international trade and policy in consumer markets. And also supporting smallholders and landscape-scale multi-stakeholder initiatives. As well as the use of remote sensing and other technologies, which have huge potential.

  • But I do want to say something on certification and consumer choices when it comes to palm oil. Hopefully by now you agree that the right – and ultimately only viable – thing to do is to help transform the palm oil industry to make it sustainable. But what’s the right thing as a consumer to help drive this change?

  • Ultimately, everyone’s choices are their own and you may want to avoid palm oil to feel as though by not using it you’re no longer part of the problem. But that’s only true in a very local and micro sense. Looked at from a wider lens, it’s also true that by doing this, you aren’t really doing anything to help be a part of the wider solution either. Markets in the UK, EU, and North America are the only ones that demand higher standards from growers to supply palm oil that has not driven deforestation and has not been produced in a way that exploits workers or local people. They are also in the global minority – most of the world’s palm oil is consumed elsewhere (e.g. India, China, and Indonesia for biofuels). So boycotting won’t fundamentally change anything. It just means that oil prices will fall and more will just be sold to other markets with lower standards – disincentivizing responsible production.

  • No individual (or organisation) has it within their sole power to stop deforestation. We can only do what we each can. But for a consumer buying a product, the best thing you can do is to make sure that the product is RSPO Certified, and if it is a food product, that it’s certified as RSPO Segregated – meaning that the oil in the product is traceable back to and RPSO certified producer. And if the products, brands, or retailers, you love don’t have this, you should use your consumer power to engage the company to request that they do this and are transparent about their sourcing standards.

  • The RSPO certification standard has been strongly criticised by the likes of Greenpeace. However, it’s important to be clear that most other credible environmental organisations support it (see the link below) – while acknowledging that it is still possible and necessary to improve.

  • To be clear, certification is only ever going to be one part of the solution to deforestation – only 20% of global production is certified this way, and it will never achieve 100% because not all of the world will pay the premium required. But that’s doesn’t mean that certification isn’t worthwhile and that it is not a force for good. To be clear, it is a major force for good in the palm oil industry and we would have to re-invent it if it didn’t already exist.

  • RSPO certified palm oil does exclude palm oil that has been grown on recently deforested land and planted on peatland soils, or that has been grown using practices that exploit workers or local people. It sets the standard for what good looks like in the wider industry. It is the benchmark that the Indonesian and Malaysian governments own systems ISPO and MSPO are following (with a lag) and trying to move all palm oil producers towards. It is THE institution that drives global transparency in palm oil sourcing and production among companies. It is THE institution that brings together all the companies in the palm oil supply chain to have dialogues and to work together, along with the major environmental organisations. And it is so much more beyond that.

  • By buying RSPO certified palm oil, you are financially supporting it in its mission to make sustainable palm oil the norm everywhere and that is a very worthwhile thing to be doing.

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Thanks for such a comprehensive response Sam! With the risk of hijacking this thread: I wonder if you’ve any thoughts on the limitations of deforestation free certification. What I remember from when I worked on our explainer about soy and deforestation in Brazil and other Latin American countries is that there are two interrelated issues - I wonder how this would translate to the case of palm oil.

  • There’s still a lot of soy grown on land that is in principle eligible for certification but currently not certified as deforestation free. This means that the amount of soy that is certified will need to increase to a much, much higher percentage of overall soy production (maybe to 70-90% of overall soy production from Latin American countries) for the connection between uncertified and deforestation to become stronger and therefore more transparent.
  • Big commodity traders often sell soy to many different countries while there is only a market for deforestation free soy in some of these countries.

Taking these two issues together, my concern is that big traders can basically follow a BAU scenario (at least for the time being) by 1) working with farmers to gradually increase the percentage of deforestation free soy in their supply chain and sell this to, say, the European market and 2) at the same time sell the uncertified soy to other countries (China is one of the biggest soy consumers, but I believe the round table for responsible soy is also becoming more active there). This is perhaps very cynical, but it seems possible in this way to keep increasing the percentage of deforestation free soy sold to the European market year on year while at the same time a trader’s overall soy volume may be linked to a same or even increasing amount of deforestation. Is this a possible scenario or am I just misunderstanding how the round tables and companies tend to approach these issues? Again, my example is about soy obviously and I appreciate the palm oil supply chain is a different beast altogether.

Thank you everyone for your thought-provoking responses!

Yes, this does seem difficult if you’re trying to avoid palm oil, or else only choose certified versions. On the other hand, I wonder if public sector canteens and restaurants are good targets for change, for example the UK’s Government Buying Standard for food and catering services requires that palm oil must be “sustainably produced”. Private sector catering may be more difficult to influence, however.

Yes, I agree. While there’s probably little harm in choosing options according to their sustainability performance if we have the time, money and energy to do so, I agree that there’s only so much we can do as individuals, unless we are in a place to influence industry or policymakers.

This is probably one of the main reasons that I don’t avoid palm oil completely. I place a lot of importance on the extent of land use when choosing other foods - e.g. beans instead of beef - because of the importance of conserving large areas of ecosystems. It’s consistent from that perspective to opt for higher-yielding oils if their contribution to deforestation can be minimised.

I’m curious to hear more about RSPO Segregated. I presume this means that the actual oil you consume was grown at a certified source, as opposed to a credit system that just proves an equivalent amount of oil elsewhere in the system was produced sustainably? Do you think there is a significant difference in impact between RSPO Certified and RSPO Segregated?

Do you have a rough idea of what percentage of global supply could feasibly be certified, from a demand perspective? I’m curious about how Walter’s point below might apply to palm oil.