Going beneath the surface on palm oil - what would you do?
Emma Keller, Head of Sustainability, writes for nestle.co.uk on the palm oil paradox.
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil extracted from the fruit of oil palm trees that are mostly grown across South East Asia, most notably Indonesia and Malaysia that produce more than 85% of global supply. Palm oil is a highly versatile and ubiquitous vegetable oil, so much so that it is found in around half of all packaged products we find in our supermarkets, everything from pizza and chocolate to shampoo and toothpaste.
So how did a vegetable oil that many of us will consume daily in some form or another, get such a bad reputation and what is being done to address it? Can palm oil really be sustainable or should we stop using it entirely?
We invite you to go beneath the surface of the palm oil dilemma.
The Palm oil paradox
One of the main reasons for palm oil’s bad reputation is its link to large scale deforestation of tropical rainforests in south east Asia and destroying the habitat of wildlife and iconic species like the Orangutan. This forest loss, coupled with the conversion and burning of carbon rich peat soils, throws out millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases and contributing to climate change. It has also led to devastating instances of haze pollution estimated to have contributed to the premature death of tens of thousands of people. If that wasn’t bad enough, the palm oil sector is also riddled with instances of exploitation of workers and child labour.
So, if palm oil production is linked to all of these serious issues, why are we still using it? The problem itself is not palm oil - a vegetable crop - it’s how it is being produced and it doesn’t have to be this way.
Palm oil is a highly productive vegetable oil crop, accounting for 35% of global vegetable oil demand and occupying just 10% of the land producing it. If we all stopped using palm oil and moved to some of the alternative vegetable oil options out there like sunflower oil, soybean oil or rapeseed oil, we could need up to nine times as much land to get the same volume of vegetable oil. This would simply shift the problem elsewhere and potentially lead to more deforestation, not less.
At the same time, around 40% of palm oil production is done by small-scale farmers and so it plays an important role in rural economic development, constituting nearly 38% of Malaysia’s agricultural output making up around 3% GDP and lifting millions of people out of poverty. Stopping palm oil production could therefore have a devastating impact on the lives and livelihoods of millions of small-scale farmers.
What would you do? Take a look Beneath the Surface
We have created a virtual platform to invite users to take a peek at some of the dilemmas we face with palm oil every day and decide what you would do. We look at three key dilemmas:
- Deforestation - should we exclude small-scale farmers linked to deforestation from our supply chain? What impact could this have and will they just sell their palm oil elsewhere?
- Forced labour - has no place in our supply chain. So, when migrant labour can represent up to 70% of labour in the sector, how do we engage to ensure human rights are respected?
- Using palm oil as an ingredient - should we stop using it? Or do we risk shifting the problems elsewhere?
What action is Nestlé taking?
We remain fully committed to playing an active role in a sustainable palm oil future, ensuring that all the palm oil we use in our products is 100% deforestation-free and certified by the Roundtable on Responsible Palm Oil (RSPO) - the leading global membership organisation setting the standard for sustainable palm oil production.
All palm oil used by Nestlé UK and Ireland is 100% Certified Segregated palm oil by the RSPO. Globally this figure is at 85% responsibly sourced palm oil, and we are committed to reaching 100% RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil by no later than 2023.
But we’re not content with just being free of deforestation, we want to contribute to a forest positive future where we play a role in forest protection, restoration and further promote sustainable livelihoods and the respect of human rights. To get us there requires a combination of tools.
Certification will continue to play a key role but we’ll also be upping the ante to increase the transparency and traceability of our supplies including through the use of enhanced supply chain mapping and innovative use of satellite monitoring services like Starling and Global Forest Watch.
We also have to work hand-in-hand with farmers and local communities, our peers in the industry and with governments to ensure effective solutions. This is also why we have committed to protect and restore more than 500,000 hectares of tropical forest landscapes in Southeast Asia, along with other key players in the sector as part of the Rimba collective. Only by working together can we fix the palm oil challenge.
What can you do?
We can all play a role towards a sustainable palm oil future where palm oil plays a role in protecting and restoring nature to the benefit of both people, animals and the planet. We are working on it and expect you to continue to hold us to account. Some key actions you can take include:
- Check to see which brands and products use sustainable palm oil with apps like Giki or with WWF’s Palm Oil Scorecard and support those using sustainable palm oil.
- Encourage your friends to go Beneath the Surface to better under understand the palm oil dilemma.
- Reduce consumption and avoid waste.
For more information on Nestlé’s approach to sourcing palm oil responsibly visit: