Palm Oil Revisited: The Limits of Eco-Friendly Palm

"The clearest way to a universe is through a forest wilderness." - John Muir

In 2016, we wrote about how we don't use palm oil in any of our nut butter or nut butter bars. This ubiquitous oil, which is found in around 50% (!) of packaged foods, offers no nutritional value, no flavor, and is a source of environmental catastrophe in the communities where it’s grown. The negative impacts of palm oil production include:
  • Deforestation
  • Habitat degradation
  • Climate Change
  • Human rights abuses of indigenous peoples
  • Animal cruelty
These issues stem from the ways in which land for palm production is procured. This is often in land grabs that have little respect for the local traditions and lifestyle of the indigenous peoples. It also stems from the way the land is cleared and prepped for farming. Trees are removed and peatlands are burned, destroying jungles, producing huge greenhouse gas emissions, and killing the animals in their homes.


"Sustainable" Palm


In an attempt to mitigate these issues, an organization known as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm (RSPO) formed in 2004 with a mission to “develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil.” In 2008, as the backlash against palm oil’s disastrous effects grew, the RSPO developed a set of environmental and social criteria which companies must comply in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). While the standards set forth by the RSPO have led to some improvements, the CSPO system remains flawed, and the complex issues created by palm production remain fraught.
Currently, only 1/5th of all palm oil is certified. And most environmentalists consider the CSPO standards far too lenient.


The other major issue with certified sustainable palm is that RSPO has very little power to enforce the standards. While they are working to strengthen their rules to give them more teeth, studies currently show mixed results as to the effectiveness of RSPO. One 2018 study found a little-to-no improvement to sustainability practices in RSPO certified farms versus conventional palm farms. However, another study by Kimberly Carlson of the University of Hawaii found that the rate of deforestation on certified plantations was a third lower than on others. Yet it’s unclear that there is a direct linkage between these improvements and the RSPO standards (more on that here). Another hurdle in the movement for sustainable palm production is that 40% of growers are smallholders. These are small farmers who see little benefit in complying with RSPO standards. They often sell to intermediaries who do not pay a premium for CSPO certified palm. Because these producers range from villagers with a few trees in their yard to wealthy businesspeople, they are challenging to monitor for environmental impact. While their control of palm production can be good for development, it is bad for the environment.


So, What to Do?


Essentially, improvements to palm production are happening, but they are slow-moving and hard to trace. Just because a palm is certified sustainable doesn’t mean its production was good for the planet. The palm industry makes the argument that palm production uses fewer resources than other oil. But often palm is used only as a filler and as a preservative, rather than being a necessary ingredient. In nut butter, the main function of palm oil is to prevent oil separation (and increase profits by providing cheap filler). That’s why we still don’t, and never will use palm oil. We think our planet is #worththestir!



For more info on the complexities of palm oil production we recommend:





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