Got Science? Momentum Building for Deforestation-Free Palm Oil

It's always great to see the door crack open for progress on an issue when the parties involved start to recognize a "win-win" solution. Such a tipping-point moment is coming into view in the campaign to halt the widespread, devastating deforestation currently resulting from growing world consumption of palm oil. It's a classic case of science and transparency shining the way forward.

The problem is far from solved but, in a major development, several large palm oil purchasers, including Kellogg's and Hershey's, have recently pledged to buy only deforestation-free palm oil for their products. Two of the world's largest palm oil suppliers -- Wilmar and Golden Agri-Resources -- have made similar commitment for the palm oil they sell. Now pressure is mounting on some of the remaining hold-outs -- like Procter & Gamble, Pepsi, and McDonald's -- to follow suit and do the right thing for the planet.

Palm Oil Is Everywhere

The stakes are high. To understand the issue, you need to know that palm oil, derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree, is a sought-after ingredient for thousands of products from snack foods to shampoo. Its versatility and low cost have made it the most widely used vegetable oil in the world. But, so far, palm oil's popularity has come at a terrible price: Today's conventional palm oil production is one of the world's major drivers of tropical deforestation, wiping out habitat for endangered species and contributing to climate change.

The other piece of the problem to understand is that corruption and lax laws in many regions have allowed a sometimes shady network of producers to clearcut vast swaths of tropical forests to make way for palm oil plantations. The clearing of these forests not only harms the habitat of many endangered species, it releases huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere that these forests had formerly stored.

Understanding the Climate Connection

Oil palm trees grow only in humid, tropical regions such as Malaysia, Indonesia, as well as parts of Africa and Latin America.

In addition to deforestation, palm oil production has also led to the destruction of peat soils in many regions. While tropical forests store vast amounts of carbon, the peat soils on which some of these forests grow often contain some twenty times more. In fact, the peat soils in Southeast Asia store as much carbon as all aboveground vegetation in the Amazon. When these peat-rich soils are drained to make way for palm oil plantations, the peat decomposes, releasing large quantities of carbon and also becoming more susceptible to fire, which can emit even more carbon into the atmosphere.

All told, tropical deforestation currently accounts for a whopping 10 percent of the world's total global warming emissions -- equivalent to the annual tailpipe emissions of some 600 million cars.

Adding considerable urgency to the problem is the growing demand for palm oil. Production has more than doubled around the world in the past decade. Palm oil plantations now cover more than 40 million acres -- an area larger than the state of Georgia.

Sustainable Practices Backed by Science

The good news is that tropical deforestation is not an inevitable outcome of palm oil production. Numerous scientific studies have shown that, through a combination of efforts, such as improving yields and planting on already-deforested lands, producers can substantially increase production without further damaging tropical forests and peat lands. This is where the "win-win" comes in.

The key is to develop transparent supply chains throughout the palm oil market. Unfortunately, today, despite a variety of efforts to combat the problem, the lack of traceability along the supply chain allows growers with a history of environmental and human rights violations to continue selling their products with no negative financial consequences. The lack of traceability and transparency also makes it all too easy for purchasing companies to turn a blind eye to where their palm oil is coming from and how it has been produced.

Demanding Better Palm Oil

To break the cycle, companies need to commit to buying only traceable, deforestation-free and peat-free palm oil and consumers need to demand that they do so. Without pressure from the public and the global marketplace, the existing network of producers are unlikely to adopt sustainable practices on their own.

To help accelerate this change, the Union of Concerned Scientists recently released a scorecard grading the palm oil sourcing commitments of 30 top companies in the packaged food, fast food and personal care sectors.

The report shows that six companies -- including L'Oréal, Nestlé, and Unilever -- have already committed to purchasing palm oil that is deforestation-free, peat-free, traceable and transparent. These companies have demonstrated that it is possible to make popular, profitable consumer products while safeguarding tropical forests. Many other companies, however, have yet to make similar commitments.

Among the most important laggards:

  • Dunkin' Brands and McDonald's are identified as two fast food companies with unacceptably weak commitments, each with vast numbers of franchises that use palm oil for frying but lack a commitment to buying palm oil that is traceable, deforestation-free and peat-free.
  • Colgate-Palmolive and Procter & Gamble, two top palm oil buyers in the personal care category, are identified as having set the bar too low in their palm oil sourcing commitments.
  • General Mills and PepsiCo, two of the largest companies in the package food category, are also identified as companies that have yet to commit to buying traceable, deforestation-free palm oil.

The Union of Concerned Scientists' report makes the case that, as a consumer, you can help drive this change by demanding that the companies whose palm oil products you use adopt deforestation-free, peat-free palm oil policies for all their products.

"Multinational companies really hold the world's tropical forests in their hands," said Calen May-Tobin, lead analyst for UCS's Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative. May-Tobin says his organization has worked with a number of companies to help them develop more sustainable policies and will be watching to make sure they follow through.

"With recent commitments from Kellogg's and Hershey's to use only traceable, deforestation-free palm oil, we see some exciting momentum building. Companies have a great opportunity right now to transform their industries while doing something that can save tropical forests and help limit the severity of climate change. And consumers have a big role to play by calling upon these companies to take action now."

Seth Shulman, senior staff writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is a veteran science journalist and author of six books whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Discover, Nature, Technology Review, Parade and many other publications. You can sign up to receive his monthly Got Science? column via email at the Union of Concerned Scientists website: