At the beginning of April, the European Parliament voted in favour of a ‘Resolution on Palm Oil and Deforestation of Rainforests’. This proposes to set up a single certification scheme by 2020, to guarantee that only sustainably produced palm oil enters the EU market. It will also require food labels to state that the palm oil used has been sustainably produced or for this information to be accessible through technological features.
Recently, many environmental activists and politicians have been demanding the adoption of various government policies based on the rather vague concept of ‘sustainability’, ‘carbon neutrality’ and ‘green’ sourcing. The goal of these ‘green’ policies are to minimise the human impact on the environment.
Of course, those goals are laudable, and one cannot help but think that it is good to try to produce stuff without impairing the environment. However, one might wonder as well if this fight against palm oil is really going to be efficient.
One should be reminded that the cultivation of oil palm is the result of a worldwide demand for affordable vegetable oil. This demand is not going to disappear. The cultivation of all oil crops presents some advantages and disadvantages. It is no surprise that the WWF has also warned against soybean production, because its cultivation has involved the conversion of Amazon forest and other valuable wild land in many South American countries.
The question that one has to solve is this: How will it be possible to ensure that the demand for vegetable oils is met with minimum environmental damage in the long term?
In order to answer that question, one needs to be reminded that palm oil has obvious advantages in terms of productivity, production volume, price, high quality and versatility compared to other vegetable oil sources such as rapeseed oil and soybean oil – and this explains the success of palm oil in the world market.
For example, oil palm trees produce almost 10 times more oil per hectare than soybean and over five times more oil than rapeseed. Also, oil palm requires about 70% less fertilisers, pesticides and fuel to produce the same amount of rapeseed oil and soybean oil. Thus, replacing the oil palm with other crops would result in greater degradation of the environment.