‘Deforestation-free’ palm oil not as simple as it sounds

Palm oil is a vegetable oil that is used in thousands of products worldwide, including an estimated 50% of all products on supermarkets shelves, from food to detergents to cosmetics.

Although growing palm trees requires less land and resources than traditional vegetable oils, the cultivation of palm oil is a major cause of tropical deforestation, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia. Oil palm plantations replaced 2.7 million hectares of tropical forest in these two countries between 1990 and 2005, leading to a loss of biodiversity and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Pressure from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Greenpeace has led many companies to commit to only using “deforestation-free” palm oil products – those made exclusively using palm oil from plantations that have not cleared forests. However, environmentalists have criticised the action so far as taking too long and not following sufficiently strict guidelines.

Now, a study by researchers from Imperial College London has revealed some of the challenges faced by companies in guaranteeing that products labelled as “deforestation-free” have really been produced without causing deforestation. The results are published this week in the journal¬†Global Environmental Change.

They identify the major barriers to success as highly complex supply chains, insufficient support from governments, a lack of consensus over what counts as ‘deforestation’, and growing markets in India and China that prefer low cost to sustainably produced goods.

However, the researchers point to some existing schemes and suggestions for tackling several of the issues that could lead to truly sustainable palm oil production.

Lead author Joss Lyons-White, from the Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment and the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial, said: “Deforestation-free palm oil is possible, but our study found it is very challenging for companies to guarantee at present.

“For example, supply chains are so complex that tracing palm oil back to source is very difficult – lots of trade may occur between different parties before manufacturing, where the palm oil is used in many different products for different purposes. This makes it hard to know exactly where the original oil was from – and whether it was linked to deforestation or not.

“However, simply banning palm oil is unlikely to be the answer. Instead, we need to find ways to ensure commitments can be implemented more effectively.”

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