Is there a future for sustainable palm oil?

The international production of palm oil threatens wild habitats, communities, and global biodiversity. Plantations cause fragmentation and forest degradation in habitats that harbour endangered sumatran tigers, orangutans, and other vulnerable species. The development of local infrastructure associated with these plantations often provides a fast track for these species to be caught and sold in the illegal wildlife trade

However, some headway is being made toward sustainable practice. But how rigorous is legislation, how well is it enforced, and is this practice likely to make a difference worldwide? 

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is an alternative to vegetable oil and other commercial oils, often cited to procure specific health benefitsWe know oils mostly to be grown from rape or maize, whereas palm oil is squeezed from a fruit produced by the oil palm tree.

By oneVillage Initiative [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By oneVillage Initiative [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The palm oil industry

Palm oil was globalised through the slave trade, and began to be used for non-food purposes with the industrial revolution. Plantations now cover 40 million hectares globally, and 56 tonnes are produced annually. 

Usually grown within a climatic band around the equator, palm oil plantations often correspond with areas of highest biodiversity, and where the world’s poorest countries may be found. However, the industry has been shown to lift people out of poverty, mostly through infrastructure development. In addition, the plant is so cost efficient that it can be relied on more heavily than seasonal agricultural crops, thus saving on land used for less productive crops. 


In 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) came together to help certify palm oil as sustainable. A controversial collaboration of organisations from WWF to Unilever, brought RSPO to the frontline of sustainable palm oil production. Now, over 60% of the world’s palm oil is sustainable. Organisations such as Johnson and Johnson, P&G, and Nestle are amongst the members, contributing to sourcing sustainable palm oil in the world’s developed countries.

Further to this, organisations involved in the RSPO umbrella do not transfer the extra costs of sustainable practice onto the consumer, enhancing their credibility. Greenpeace criticises that despite an organisation fulfilling RSPO criteria, a company may still not be guaranteed to be free from unsustainably sourced oil; less than 10% of P&G palm oil is certified sustainably sourced. 

Despite a small portion of the market certified through the RSPO, 85% of palm oil remains unsustainable. A greater market pull by consumers is necessary to help drive a change in the industry. 

By Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Who is leading the way? 

Sime Darby, a founding member of the RSPO, produces 5% of the world’s palm oil. In countries such as Malaysia, they employ 500,000 people (2010), equating to 9% of the country’s GDP. They claim sustainability is part of their core agenda, and is not just trying to adhere to market requirements; though spokespeople do acknowledge that a big challenge facing the industry is pleasing investors that are increasingly requesting moral and environmental impacts to be managed alongside money and growth. Sustainability is also an ever changing concept, making it difficult for organisations to keep up with. 

If the sustainable industry is to grow, India and China must follow suit. The RSPO claims that if Western nations use it, those fast growing economies will follow. Multinationals involved in the RSPO have committed to using 100% sustainably sourced palm oil; the RSPO estimates that those industries will follow suit after that date. 

Sadly, supply outstrips demand in the sustainable business; only 50% of the product is sold as sustainable, and the other 50% is sold normally, though it is sustainably sourced. 

Some companies deny the RSPO trademark on their packaging – for example, if palm oil constitutes a small percentage in the ingredients. Rather than taking valuable packaging space, the logo will thus appear on the website for consumers to engage with. This is a problem for consumers in the supermarkets coming to face to face with choices about the environment at a time when everybody is striving to make a difference. It is likely this will be affected by changes made to EU food labelling laws later in 2014. Some argue that a market based approach will have little impact, with a lag time of around 4 to 5 years


Central Malaysia is rife with palm oil activity. The land is significantly fragmented due to plantations and agriculture, posing a huge threat to this biodiverse area. In 1985, the Royal Society set up a research station in pristine lowland rainforest, which was previously never logged nor inhabited, and harbours some of the world’s most popular keystone species such as elephants and orangutans. Surrounding the pristine research forest lies areas of sequentially logged, disturbed habitats. Future research suggests that these degraded habitats may support ecosystem functions at a different scale, though it has been shown that orangutan populations thrive in such habitats. A landscape approach is also necessary in order to assess the extent of ecological impacts, as migratory corridors and edge effects influence the level of disturbance. 

Project SEARRP, established by the Royal Society to protect south-east Asian rainforest, is conducting research on the impacts of palm oil in the area. Funded by shell, research has uncovered that tree species dominating the Malaysian forest (Dipterocarps)  are not regenerating in areas smaller than 100 hectares due to lack of recruitment, whilst palm oil is fragmenting and degrading the soils.

The interface between science, policy and best practice is needed to build confidence, alongside a strong scientific evidence base for sustainable palm oil development.