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Pondering Palm Oil

Ended soon

Guest post by Kelly Standart

At the beginning of my six-week internship at ISC, I chose to research Palm Oil, in preparation for an upcoming trip to Indonesia by ISC President George Hamilton. I was pretty unaware of palm oil as a crop or its implications; I had a vague thought about deforestation and worried about cute baby orangutans. I quickly learned that the vast deforestation in Indonesia was endangering not only the orangutans, but also the Sumatran tiger, the pygmy elephant, the Sumatran rhinoceros, and others, and the impact of the palm oil monoculture farming reaches much further than just animals.


The entire supply chain (depicted above) is riddled with issues. Plantations cut down primary rainforest to plant more oil palm trees. In some instances these forests are the last known habitats for endangered species. This further displaces the animals, causing some to walk into plantations where they’re abused or killed by workers who are afraid of them. Sometimes the animals die in fires – the fastest way to clear forests. These fires not only release the carbon dioxide from the trees and vegetation, but also burn the peat bogs in which the forests grow. These peat bogs are carbon sinks, so when they’re burned, they release huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The draining and burning of peat land in Indonesia makes the country one of the world’s top producers of greenhouse gas emissions.


However, the issues with plantations do not stop there. Some plantations hire workers and set impossibly high harvesting standards. Employees of plantations have to work long hours for little pay, have their children come help them harvest (which is illegal), or end up owing the plantations more work. There have been reports of human rights violations, including kidnapping and indentured servitude.


Within 24 hours of picking, the fresh fruit bunches must be transported to local mills for pressing, otherwise they start to spoil. This puts the mills in a very powerful position because there are limited numbers of them, and the plantations must go through the mills if they intend to make a profit. Additionally, at the mills any sustainable palm oil that is produced in the region will most likely become mixed with regular palm oil. This makes it nearly impossible to trace sustainable palm oil. Traceability becomes even more difficult when the palm oil is shipped overseas to different refineries. Here, the oil is refined into different products with hundreds of different names, ending up in countless everyday products, from lipstick and washing detergent to cookies and peanut butter.


The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has set international standards for sustainable palm oil which are a great start, but still much too low. For example, the RSPO limits cutting of High Conservation Value (HCV) forests, but not deforestation altogether. An additional issue with their standard is that it requires that no HCV areas have been cut since 2005; however, this does not allow for companies to progress and become certified if they have replaced forest since then.


However, professionals who are focusing on palm oil sustainability do not recommend eliminating palm oil from our lives. Since palm oil is the most highly yielding vegetable oil, which ultimately means that to produce the same amount of oil, oil palms require less forest destruction than that of another crop; instead, as a start, we should buy the products from companies that have pledged to purchase only sustainable palm oil, and ensure that they are upholding their promises.


In my six weeks at ISC, I learned a lot. I was able to delve deep into the complicated system surrounding the supply chain of palm oil. I polished up my online sleuthing skills by finding biographies of people ISC is meeting with in Indonesia. My first week I followed the Climate Week news reports from New York City, which brought me up to speed on a lot of environmental issues. I made the infographic on palm oil. The list continues of amazing opportunities I was given during my brief stint at ISC. Most of all, I learned the importance of a good sweater in an office that focuses on sustainability!


Editor’s Note: We do keep the heat kind of low here in the Vermont office during stick season! Sorry, Kelly! But we’re really glad you came to intern with us.