My Word: The problem of the careful consumer | So Good News


In an article called “The Irreplaceable”, Bee Wilson explains how the use of palm oil has not been found in almost every household in the world for decades, but it has changed the way we live and eat every day.

If, at first glance, this may sound like a strange statement, think of the suds of everyday soap, the softness of a bag of chips, the smoothness of chocolate butter and the advertising slant associated with almost every shampoo.

All of these are the result of palm oil: stearic acid, palmitic acid, oleic acid and glycerine. If the amount of protein isn’t impressive enough, palm oil has risen to the top because of its ability to produce more oil per hectare than any other crop.

In other words, extracting the same amount of oil from a coconut palm requires 10 times the amount of land. Combined with the availability of cheap labor, the large availability of land and voluntary organizations in the government, palm oil has secured its place as the best vegetable oil to date.

Economic models predict a continuous increase in the demand for this high-quality crop until 2050, when the world’s population is increasing, and the demand for related products will gradually follow.

However, all economic indicators have been missing one key variable on the balance sheet, and the markets are already reacting.

The main debate: Oil versus habitat

Currently, palm oil is competing for space in one of the world’s most biodiverse regions.

Every hectare of oil palm produced today was once home to a large forest of trees that would have housed many species of birds, insects, mammals, reptiles and fungi.

Anti-oil palm advocates have leaned on iconic species such as the orangutan as a symbolic representation of many species threatened with extinction by habitat loss.

The issue of biodiversity loss (whether known or real) has become a measure for cautious consumers around the world in the global north, where it has become common for retailers to separate products with palm oil and without oil.

The issues here are complex and full of accusations from both sides of the divide: Anti-palm advocates accuse oil palm farmers of lack of interest in biodiversity, while oil palm farmers accuse advocates of ulterior motives and an interest in other vegetable oils. It is not competitive or efficient.

Investigating the truth of any of these claims is beyond the scope of this article, and perhaps not really necessary.

A key debate is whether banning or switching to inefficient vegetable oils will have positive effects on biodiversity and reduce deforestation.

The past five years provide useful information, as anti-palm sentiment has reached its peak as the European Union (EU) imposes regulations to ban palm imports and force companies to remove them from their products.

However, palm oil prices have risen steadily, supported by growing markets in Asia and fueled by global food shortages. The economic outlook for palm oil looks as bright and promising as ever.

At the moment, the exclusion of European markets only drives palm oil producing economies to seek relationships with investors who do not care and are less concerned with factors that cannot yet be considered in prices – which are biodiversity and the health of workers.

Metric: Rise of one, fall of many

The problems related to biodiversity and oil palm plantations can be seen from two angles.

First, if biodiversity loss is to be accounted for in palm oil prices, a weighting or distribution metric for biodiversity will be needed.

Despite many years of research on this issue, this discussion is still in its infancy and already has herculean challenges that will require great political and economic will – which leads me to the second point.

Political and economic will are closely related to market forces. If the market puts a lower price on a variety of security, farmers respond accordingly. This goes back to the problem of our careful consumers.

Reduced demand for palm oil in the global north could spell disaster for biodiversity, as it reduces any incentive to make palm oil more environmentally friendly. For example, consider a chocolate company in Europe that relies on palm oil for its operations. If many of its customers start to ignore the chocolate because of the use of palm oil, the chocolate maker will have no choice but to find alternatives, which push the palm growers elsewhere.

By completely abandoning palm oil, the conscientious consumer gives up their power to influence how palm oil plantations are grown and managed.

The elimination of markets that want to act in favor of biodiversity can be justified by the fact that palm oil is very bad for biodiversity and will not be beneficial.

While it may be true that palm oil cannot support biodiversity like forests, expecting plantations to immediately revert to forests is unrealistic and inconsiderate of vulnerable people who are working hard to participate in the modern economy.

There are no easy ways here, because any work to remove land from the forest will be difficult. The key here is to try to make this place as biodiversity friendly as possible and, fortunately, there is plenty of opportunity to do so, given enough pressure and motivation to do so.

The quest for land: Developing a sustainable way forward

The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has had great success with controlling planters to protect highly protected areas (HCV) or create coastal barriers or implement strict “no hunting” rules in plantations.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, as researchers continue to test and test a myriad of tools that range from using advanced drone imagery to monitor biodiversity to keeping simple pockets of “wilderness” in fields as smart refuges. of wild animals.

The answers are out there, and they are waiting to be tested, implemented and implemented by law, but they will remain in academic books unless the companies can be interested in investing time and energy in them.

The careful consumer has incredible power to shape the future of this classic crop, but he can do so by getting involved.

This old saying is a myth, but true today. To deal with biodiversity loss, we need bridges, not walls.

Chrishen Gomez is a wildlife researcher at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, University of Oxford, where he is pursuing a PhD in wildlife genetics. He is a recipient of the Merdeka Award for International Attachment and a National Geographic Explorer.


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