The use of palm oil is pervasive in Europe and North America. Palm oil is found in virtually all packaged food and beauty products, from margarine to lipsticks, body creams, and soaps. Its popularity stems from the fact that the oil palm is a high-yielding crop and requires fewer chemical fertilizers and pesticides than any of its vegetable oil substitutes. Malaysia and Indonesia provide up to 90 percent of the global demand for palm oil. However, there has been a backlash against palm oil products in recent years due to concerns that these two producer countries have been destroying their rainforests and lacking in biodiversity. This has polluted the air due to the slash-and-burn agricultural techniques and displaced indigenous peoples to make way to cultivate oil palms.
However, Palm oil is by far the cheapest vegetable oil in the international market as it produces more oil per acre than any other crop. As a result, the focus should be on its sustainable production rather than demonizing the crop. Currently, the European Palm Oil Alliance (EPOA), founded to address the concerns around deforestation and loss of biodiversity, is committed to sustainable palm oil production. Similarly, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) works to set global standards for the use of sustainable oil palm products. The RSPO provides certification for smallholders and corporations that produce palm oil that is not detrimental to people or the environment.
Another reason to support palm oil production is that smallholder farmers produce about 50 percent of the crop. This has the effect of lifting smallholder farmers and communities out of poverty and improving income distribution in producer countries. The challenge is to convince consumers to insist on RSPO certified palm oil products as a means to conserving both the rainforests, the biodiversity, as well as endangered animal species such as the orangutan.
The oil palm plantations also have benefits for the environment, which are often overlooked. Some studies show that oil palm plantations are an excellent carbon sink, and they give off more oxygen than other plantations. As we have mentioned, the problem has to do with the manner of acquiring and clearing the land for palm oil production. Therefore, the main challenge is to find a mechanism to protect primary forests from illegal logging while encouraging the use of already cleared land.