Regarding Michael Gonchar’s science lesson plans — “Endangered Orangutans and the Palm Oil Industry: An Environmental Science Case Study,” published November 9, 2017 – we generally agree with his statement that, “there’s an argument to be made against all-out palm oil boycotts.” We thank him for calling attention to the need for more education.
The best solution for protecting our wildlife and rainforests is to support stronger standards, and beef up enforcement of already existing laws and legislation. One way this can be done is by supporting the global use of certified sustainable palm oil, which is produced in compliance with stringent laws protecting wildlife, the environment and small family farmers.
Until recent years, most of the palm oil used in the United States was sustainably produced in Malaysia, a recognized leader in responsible palm oil production. It simply isn’t the conflict palm oil that harms our wildlife, people or planet. In fact, the Malaysian government and its palm oil industry are committed to maintaining our market share over other producers by choosing the certified, sustainability and non-conflict routes. These actions have a strong potential of disengagement from many negative environmental practice perceptions currently associated with the industry.
About virgin rainforests and climate change
As Gonchar notes, some palm oil cultivation resulted in the conversion of forests in producing countries. The Malaysian case is often taken as a point for more positive reference in the development of the oil palm industry. Malaysian palm plantations occupy only legal agricultural land and land is properly zoned. Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) studies were also required to avoid high-conservation value areas. Further, our high-yielding trees produce oil-rich fruit for more than twenty years before needing to be replaced. And when it is time to replant, open-air burning is not allowed. Much of Malaysia’s forest land remains is protected, and current national forest cover has been acknowledged at nearly 56 percent of total land area in the country. At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, Malaysia pledged to keep at least half of its land under forest cover. It has thus kept that promise despite becoming a major global palm oil producer.
Malaysia’s oil palm plantations are actually carbon sinks, and efficient at absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. While the media and persons such as Gonchar are critical of our practices, can they truly equate such measures in many Western countries including those in the USA and Canada?
Responsible palm oil producers are protecting our orangutan population
Orangutans are not native to peninsular (West) Malaysia. Most of Malaysia’s nearly 13,000 orangutans in the states of Sabah and Sarawak live on the island of Borneo’s protected forests. The wildlife and forestry authorities in these Malaysian states have taken necessary measures so now the wild population lives mostly inside the protected area. That’s not a challenge as an astonishingly 50 percent of both Sabah and Sarawak are under forest cover. This provides ample natural habitat for the orangutans to thrive.
Gonchar questions the wisdom of palm oil industry-supported wildlife protection efforts. Here again, he is right to commend sustainable palm oil which protects wildlife both in our processes as well as with our financial support. To actively avoid or ban the use of sustainably produced palm oil in our food supply would damage an industry that now actively supports environmental protection, including the orangutans in Malaysia’s Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, established 50 years ago and financially supported by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council. Sepilok also was the first center in the world to return orangutans to the wild.
The Malaysian palm oil industry has also partnered with the Malaysian government on the establishment and operation of the Malaysian Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund (MPOWCF). Palm oil executives participate in highly effective conservation efforts throughout the country. For example, MPOWCF funded an orangutan population survey which identified and mapped key habitats to better protect these majestic creatures. MPOWCF also partners with the Sabah Wildlife Department on the Wildlife Rescue Unit, which is active in conservation as well as translocation of wildlife impacted by human-wildlife conflict. These teams monitor protected wildlife and help any in need. Not stopping with orangutans, the MPOWCF also provides major funding for the Borneo Elephant Wildlife Sanctuary.
Transparent supply chains and sustainable sourcing are quickly becoming a reality
The Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification program, first launched in 2015, is quickly becoming known around the world as an indicator of quality. Its standards have been established to reflect the realities of the oil palm industry and address the concerns expressed by stakeholders.
MSPO certification addresses the environmental, social and economic aspects of palm oil production. It covers all aspects of palm oil production, from the field to the final product. It includes general principles as well as stringent criteria for all parties involved in palm oil production, from the independent family farmers who tend the trees which produce the oil-rich fruit to the organizations that assist these smallholders to the palm oil mills which process the oil.
The MSPO standards cover seven areas:
- Management commitment and responsibility
- Compliance to legal requirements
- Social responsibility, safety and employment conditions
- Environment, natural resources, biodiversity and ecosystem services
- Best practices
- Development of new plantings
Consider the real causes of deforestation
Much is written about palm oil and deforestation. To put the land use in perspective, an FAO report found that livestock accounts for 71 percent of all global agricultural land use. About 3.9 billion hectares of land are used by the livestock industry, of which 3.4 billion hectares are used for grazing while another 471 million hectares are dedicated to produce animal feed. This area is five times larger than Australia.
By comparison, the area occupied by oil palm in the world, at 15.6 million hectares, or 0.31 percent of all agricultural land use, is miniscule.
Consider the environmental and human costs of not using palm oil
- What is being used instead of palm oil? Palm oil is non-GMO. The same can’t be said for soy or corn oils. Likewise, oil palms require about 1/10th the amount of land to produce the same amount of oil than the far less efficient soy or canola crops. If consumer demand for these other oils increases – and worldwide food security is a very real concern – could deforestation to make room for more agricultural land be far behind?
- What happens to the family farmers supported by sustainable palm oil production? MSPO certification is about more than protecting the forests and wildlife. It is about providing a living wage for the more than half a million people employed by this industry including 640,000 family farmers (smallholders).
- Would we sacrifice an affordable source for nutrition? Sustainable palm oil is cost effective, competitively priced, naturally trans-fat free and a rich source of pro-vitamin A, a nutrient associated with helping to reduce childhood blindness around the world. Numerous clinical studies have also determined that palm oil nutrients, specifically vitamin E tocotrienols, support heart and brain health.
Voice your concerns to the brands you buy
We agree with Options 2 and 3 in Gonchar’s lessons on taking a stand. Thankfully, finding food products made with certified sustainable palm oil is getting easier. Malaysian certified sustainable palm oil reaches more than 160 countries and it is increasingly being used in many food formulations worldwide. It should, by far, remain as the most prevalent palm oil found in the American food supply.
Brands such as General Mills, Kellogg’s, Mars, Mondelez, Hershey’s and ConAgra Foods have strong responsible palm oil policies. We support these companies, as well as the thousands of other manufacturers who have chosen to use premium, sustainable palm oil. Most of it comes from Malaysian plantations. Their use of our sustainably produced oil has lifted many of our family farmers out of poverty, led to a better life for our children and have helped us care for our environment.
We welcome students and educators to dig deeper into the environmental, economic and health benefits of certified sustainable palm oil.
Dr. Kalyana Sundram is Chief Executive Officer of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC). He has more than 35 years of research experiences with various aspects of oils and fats process technologies, nutrition and technical marketing. He is a fellow of the Malaysian Academy of Sciences and Fellow of the Nutrition Society of Malaysia and member of several international professional associations. Dr. Sundram is acknowledged for his work on the health and nutrition of fats, fatty acids and their minor constituents. He has served on WHO, FAO and IUNS expert consultations, published extensively on palm oil and holds 21 patents. He has coordinated more than 170 research and promotion projects on palm oil its components, sustainability and wildlife conservation. He leads a team at MPOC that uses science to communicate the positives of palm oil. He has taken the lead in bringing together a diverse range of international events and also manages the Malaysian Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund on behalf of MPOC.