This post was originally published on April 30, 2021 and updated on August 2, 2021.

When evaluating the ecological impact of the foods we eat, it is important to hold similar crops to the same or similar standards. That is part of the premise of this article. “Palm Oil’s Image is Very One-Sided,” that appeared in Wageningen World, a publication by Wageningenur University in The Netherlands. The article features an interview with Dutch scientist Douglas Sheil, a professor of forest ecology and forest management at the university. 

Palm oil is known to be one of the most land efficient oil crops. Sustainable production processes, such as those used in Malaysia, dramatically limit the use of herbicides and pesticides. Malaysia’s oil palm plantations are home to a biodiverse ecosystem

Yet there are persistent concerns about palm oil production causing deforestation, and about its effects on wildlife. That, explains Sheil, is only part of the story. He cites Sumatra, where the orangutan population disappeared decades ago. “Yet the forest is still standing. Plantations have barely played a role.” He added, “In places like Malaysia, where orangutans are not shot at, they can survive and raise their young on remaining forest areas between the plantations.” 

He points out that other edible crops are grown in fragile habitats. “People who worry about palm oil should actually stop drinking coffee and eating chocolate. They are all in the same category. The question is how you can produce them in responsible ways.”

Sheil explains that while palm oil is constantly under tremendous public and regulatory scrutiny, the same is not true for other edible oil crops, about which little environmental research has been conducted. “There exists quite a blind spot with other crops. Take peanut and soya farming for example. Species diversity on these farms may well be lower than on an oil palm plantation, while pesticide use may be higher. … we simply must take a much closer look at the impact of other oil crops.”

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He asserts that boycotting palm oil is not the solution, explaining: “The crop itself is not the problem. The question is what it replaces and how it is produced. There are bad olive and coconut producers too.”  

With research, the world’s food manufacturers can identify the good and bad ingredient suppliers. Concludes Sheil, “I believe consumers do want to make that distinction. Just look at the success of fair trade coffee. Most importantly, we should stick to the same standards for all oil crops and not be too quick to make black and white judgments about how things are done far away.” 

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