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Palm and other feed stock. Can we ever farm responsibly?

January 19, 2016

This blog pretty much got started on the back of a Palm Oil story but then, somewhere around the beginning of 2014 I stopped writing so much about it. I felt that I’d shared all I knew, that there was both a system and support for this better way of doing things that would ultimately solve the problems and elevate the palm crop to the lofty status of ‘super veg’ that I thought it deserved. But that was back then. Much has changed in the past two years and I don’t feel it is all for the better. People can be such a disappointment.

In 2015 Indonesia burned. Forest fires sent up plumes of smoke that covered large chunk of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, choking the planet and polluting a little more of the oxygen and hope we need to help us collectively get ahead in the race to slow down global warming. Apparently the fires were particularly bad this year due to a combination of an El Nino weather system making conditions much dryer and a preference for slash-and-burn farming in the region where the fires started. This plus the darkest truth, the truth that if we think razing the forest is bad, it’s nothing compared to the environmental devastation wreaked by draining and leaving the peat bogs tinder try.   And that’s exactly what is happening here.

I have a connection to the forests of Indonesia, of Kalimantan in particular. I certainly started my own personal ‘coming of age’ amongst those trees and while walking boardwalks over those boggy areas, I may have even helped to establish a research station whose data is no doubt being ignored right now. Or maybe it was never used. Whatever the truth I feel the scars personally and that motivates me to keep searching for a better way.

Peat bogs don’t sound very sexy at all and have none of the marketing appeal of the deep forest with its monkeys and chirruping sound track. Even with my nostalgia and happy camp-chunder (yes, that’s what we called our base) memories I still picture waist deep mud thick with mozzies, snakes and fresh water crocodiles (well, that’s an exaggeration but…), sweat puddles and itching. But we can’t keep looking for sexy things to save and hang our hopes on. Peat bogs could save our collective arses much more effectively than even living forest alone thanks to their ability to sequester the much more potent greenhouse gas, Nitrous Oxide – a gas that is water soluble (remember, peat bogs are wet and boggy until they are drained) and a gas that is 296 times more potent at warming the planet than Carbon Dioxide!   It is starting to look like the ‘in-your-face’ choking of the forest fires is the least of our worries.

So what is the link between peat bog draining and Palm?

Palm grows well on ex-peat bog land. Very well. One of my arguments in favour of palm has always been that it is a fast growing, high yielding crop, a crop that if replaced could see us needing up to six times more land to produce the equivalent mass of oil. This still holds true but I’m starting to wonder if part of Palms productivity is due to the high quality soil that it is being grown on, soil that should never, ever be farmed, soil that is quite literally costing the earth.

The scientific article that opened my eyes to the fact that palms productivity might not be just crop related was this: ‘Life cycle assessment of five vegetable oils’ Jannick H. Schmidt. 2-0 LCA consultants, Skibbrogade 5, 1, 9000 Aalborg, Denmark. The article was published in the Journal of Cleaner Production and has been available online since October 2014 – I only saw it last month. I mentioned that I’d been asleep on this issue didn’t I? The aim of the study was to compare life-cycle impacts of Palm, Soybean, Rapeseed (Canola here in Oz), Sunflower and Peanut oil using consequential modeling – a modeling tool that considers the wider environmental consequences of a particular decision to produce a particular product. While the consequential model of analysis has its uncertainties and inferences it is much better suited to the study of impacts from ‘products’ such as a palm farm whereas attributional modeling (an alternative type) is probably best suited to analyzing the life-cycle impacts of a different type of bottle produced in a bottle plant. After a fair bit of research my conclusion is that this is the best modeling we currently have on offer.

I found the aforementioned study a chunky and difficult read, one which quite literally made me engage personally with over half of the published references in order to get a better understanding of the reports conclusions and inferences. Although I admit to having difficulties in processing the report (it took me a good four days to read and digest it all) I found it perversely exciting as it is rare for me to come across something as thought provoking and challenging on an issue which I felt I knew so much about. I do like a good challenge. I mention this as I often have people come to me with their ‘weeks and weeks of research’ which in reality is a lot of second-hand opinions and here-says that confirm ones previously held bias and remind myself that this, this is what primary research looks and feels like. It’s the kind that makes you want to get stuck right into and pick down to the bones, the kind that actually facilitates that type of thinking rather than leads you down a blind alley. Exciting stuff.

So what did the report say?

Having already pointed out the fact that peat bogs grow good Palm crops this report spells out the impact of that and ends up ranking Palm oil lower than Rapeseed as a sustainable crop. The order was as follows:






Current estimates have around 13-22% of oil palm being produced on drained peat bogs (around 13% in Malaysia and 22% in Indonesia). The exact current situation and future reality are made harder by the fact that accurate land-holding (concession) maps have not been made public at this point. As you can imagine the lack of transparency here is a political hot potato and lies at the heart of the environmentalist fight for transparency and the work of the RSPO.   The reality that we have uncertainties as to the boundaries and history of palm growing land also contributes to the known uncertainties surrounding the consequential life cycle model. Based on what we do know and can infer, the field emissions produced from peat bog clearing as part of the Palm farming lifecycle play a huge role in making palm more impactful than Sunflower or Rapeseed – something that I’d not appreciated before.

But is that right? Is palm really worse for the environment than Rapeseed?

 Modern agriculture and chemical cocktails.

 Now you could call it me looking for a way to justify my previously held beliefs that Palm is a good crop or you could say that I’m just curious, I anticipate it is a bit of both but I found the notion of Rapeseed being better than Palm a bit hard to swallow.

I grew up surrounded by Rapeseed (the yellow peril) and while it does look pretty when it is bloom I know that in reality this is another crop that is mono-cultured, factory-farmed and what’s more it is a crop that is heavy on pesticide use. I have, in another post mentioned that if we swap out Palm for Rapeseed we would most likely see a larger decline in the global bee population thanks to the increase in need for pesticide as all of these other ‘feedstock’ crops are low-growing and prone to weeds and other pests. Here palm has a natural advantage over the other mentioned crops as it quickly grows its own pest protection in the form of a canopy that prevents the growth of ground weeds and competing plants. Further, Palm is a long-lasting crop that needs planting once every 20-40 years rather than annually so in a lifetime the fertilizer impact is surely tiny when compared to the others.   I couldn’t find mention of this in the Schmidt report and I wondered why? Surely lifecycle use of pesticides is hugely impactful – pesticides are usually petrochemical based (and thus have their own footprint) and bring with them more environmental impact for all parts of the food chain.

What the Schmidt report left out (as far as I can see) in pesticide it made up for in that other farmers friend – chemical fertilizer. Palm’s fertilizer impact is nearly 2.5 times less than Sunflower and less than 1/5th of that of Rapeseed. On the face of it that was pleasing to me and re-confirmed my faith in Palm but after asking myself why this might be so I felt less comforted. It is entirely possible that the palm crops need less fertilizer because they are being grown on the most fertile of land, Peat bogs? Land that typically grows Sunflower and Rapeseed has already been decimated by centuries of agriculture of which the last fifty plus years has been of the ‘factory’ variety. This brings us to the question of national wealth and ‘progress’, the equitable growth/ global opportunities argument. Our western hemisphere farmland so big, brash, open and tree-less wasn’t always like that but we can’t remember IT being razed can we? We might feel all misty-eyed and romantic when hearing our grandparents telling us stories that go ‘I remember when this was all fields my lad’ while looking out over what is now a housing development or ‘this land used to feed 10 families and the hedgerows used to be full of life before factory farming swallowed it up and cut it down’ but the reality is that what is happening in South East Asia already happened in Europe and in many ways we are encouraging it by wanting too much, buying too much, demanding more.

My gut feeling here is that the total environmental cost of the fertilizer and more importantly the pesticide has not been fully amortized for each crop, possibly because the fertilizer/ pesticide/ bee link is yet another political/ corporate hot potato!   My worry here is that without adequate attribution for chemicals in the lifecycle we could be in danger of once again backing the wrong horse with even worse consequences than before. My outstanding question with relation to palm is this, could palm grow and be as productive, high-yielding and as chemically un-reliant as peat rich crops currently are if grown on less environmentally sensitive soils OR is palm dependent on peat for its success?

 An aside – Feedstock and Human Intervention.

At this point it is worth noting that none of the mentioned feedstocks are completely natural in as much as the cultivars that produce these commercially viable yields have been selected and bred to make farming as profitable and convenient as possible. For example, the palm crop that is grown in monoculture to feed our need for vegetable oil is smaller (to make harvesting easier) and produces more oil-dense fruit than what would be the case if we had just allowed nature to run its course.   These types of human-intervention affect all of the crops making them both more yielding while at the same time more ‘taking’ from the land in terms of nutrients. There is no free lunch!

And then the processing.

Another thing that I hadn’t considered in my “Palm is Best” rhetoric of days-gone-by is the impact from milling. Milling with regards to the running of the facilities wasn’t something that I had any information about or insight into before reading the Schmidt report and it turns out that this is another area where Palm falls short. While it is true that there has been big business activity in Palm Farming for some years now the infrastructure involved in getting crop from farm to refinery is still somewhat boutique and antiquated when compared to that which we have in the western world and herein lies the problem.

The very thing that keeps at least some of the Palm oil wealth in the hands of the local forest farmers is what bumps up its environmental impact with small local palm oil mills being over three times more impactful than Rapeseed mills. It turns out that a large part of this impact comes from the way the plants treat their effluent with many relying on anaerobic digestion of waste – a process that releases planet-heating methane into the environment at an alarming rate.   It is estimated that only 5% of the mills have biogas capture facilities that would mitigate this environmental impact and that simply isn’t enough. That said, it should surely be possible, with investment for these mills to be upgraded and cleaned up to an acceptable standard thus further reducing Palms impact. I just hope that should these mills be earmarked for an upgrade that an option to consolidate and centralize isn’t muted as the human costs of such a move on the traditional farmers would be dramatic and completely unfair (although completely within keeping with ‘our’ capitalist sensitibilites).

 And what about demand?

When I stopped writing so much about palm two years ago it was at a time when my customers demand for ‘Palm Free’ cosmetics was still growing hot. However, as I suspected global demand for palm has kept rising at a phenomenal rate.

In 1995 world vegetable oil consumption was 75 million MT

By 2005 it was 125 million MT

Last year in 2015 it was 175 Million MT.

Although these figures are for ‘vegetable’ and not just specifically palm oil, the lions share of the growth has been provided by Palm, not least because it is the ideal feedstock for biodiesel, is non-GMO (something that people also want), has the right fatty acid profile for cosmetic and is a low ‘trans-fat’ oil (another thing we want). Put simply, we just can’t get enough of it!

The biodiesel industry is quite fascinating and in some ways beautifully highlights how dumb we are as a species. According to figures while Palm is a great biodiesel fuel, which is experiencing a boom in demand, it makes no sense environmentally. It has ben calculated that it would take between 80-150 years of palm biodiesel production to off-set the initial emissions released from deforestation to ‘break even’ in terms of environmental CO2 impact. Makes fossil fuels seem like good clean fun when you put it like that! But nobody does.

On the subject of demand it is the projection of increasing demand for Palm that also contributes to its less than perfect ranking in the Schmidt study. The consequential modeling tool has looked at the trajectory of palm and estimated what impact that will have if land required to fulfill the projected demand is cleared and drained (much of the new land being peat bog). Now this hasn’t yet happened in full so if we could find a way of growing productive Palm crops in other locations we could be onto a winner.

So where has that left me and my Cosmetic Chemist sensibilities?

I have always found it important to remember that the industry to which I belong is one that is at best 10% necessity (the other 90% being a mixture of vanity and play). It’s not that I feel that makes my industry of no value but I do feel it is essential in helping me to set my moral compass in terms of feedstock valuation. With only around 1/10th of what we use being ‘needed’ I feel that we should value our feedstock very highly indeed – one would not die if lipstick, mascara and foundation became extinct although I would be a lot worse off financially!

While the cosmetic industry isn’t as big as that of food and neither does it have the potential to be as big as the biodiesel industry it is still significant and in many ways forms the window through which we, as consumers, become acquainted to the bigger issue that is our finite planet and natural resources. As such what we do here is probably more important from a moral, role model and educational perspective than it will ever actually be on the ground.   So what do we do?

In 2013/ early 2014 the best that most suppliers of cosmetic ingredients could give in terms of an ‘environmental tick’ for palm inclusive ingredients was that they were signatories of the Round Table for Sustainable Palm – RSPO. Now that isn’t good enough, a fact that I’ve become increasingly aware of over the last month or so.   Believe it or not this is a good thing and a sign that intention alone is not producing the outcomes required to get results. Over the last two years much progress has been made in the segregation and tracing of palm from farm to chemical factory, so much so that palm oil purchasers can now be confident that their certified palm IS making a difference – a voting with the wallet effect. Well, that would be the case if people were indeed rushing to buy it… In 2013 56,233 MMT of Palm oil was produced and only 9,792MMT of that (17%) was certified production. Of that 17% of certified palm 8.21 (just under half) was left unsold that year!   I don’t know how 2014 and 2015 figures compare to that, I would like to think that demand is growing and is being followed through by purchasing but people can be funny things – we say we want something, jump up and down and scream until we are red in the face then baulk at having to pay extra for it. I hope that doesn’t happen here. In any case the take-home message is that certified palm is flowing through the system now, can be purchased and is in reasonable supply. If we want things to get better, to change faster we need to make sure that the demand for certified keeps on growing while demand for uncertified palm becomes as unpopular and unwanted as a moldy peach in a fruit basket.

And where does that leave me personally/ politically?

On a political level the Palm issue presents with it a few moral dilemmas as I’ve previously alluded to.   Palm grows best in places where it is hot all year round with a lot of sunshine and plenty of rain. It requires a flat and deep soil that is permeable and rich. It also requires infrastructure (oil mills etc.) around it to make for cost-effective processing. These things are available in South East Asia and to some extent in parts of East Africa and South America, in tropical rainforest areas.  And therein lies the trouble. We find a crop that is perfect for feeding our westernized appetite for excess EXCEPT that to meet our demands we need to sacrifice the forest and peat bogs- the lungs and carbon sinks of the world. Bummer. We (people in already industrialized parts of the world) view the rainforest with a romanticism that allows us to feel deeply hurt by the prospect of it disappearing while having no real feel for or connection with either it or, closer to home, the robbed and degraded land that we base ourselves on. It is at best ironic and at worse deeply insulting.

Personally I’ve long concluded that greed is and always has been a problem of civilized society and I say civilized through gritted teeth. Economic prosperity, dollars in the bank, commerce tends to bring out the worst in humans – the gluttonous, addictive lure of more, more, more. I have always liked money and the choices and freedom that it affords and the thrill of money well earned but it’s not something that I neither take for granted nor waste. I’m explicitly aware of my white privilege and in the last few years have become increasingly switched on to the need to use my money, every little bit of it to ‘invest’ in the kind of future I want to create and yes, that does include the option to buy sustainable over non-sustainable consumer goods when necessary. I am patently aware that on an individual I don’t do enough ‘putting my money where my mouth is’ to feel really comfortable but I am getting there, I am doing something and I’m working towards doing the best I can do and then stretching myself further and higher. I am also aware that with so many people aspiring to my level of privilege I have to yield more to accommodate, to be fair. I have to accept that it is time to give some things up and that’s actually OK.

So after all that is palm OK or not?

While I am somewhat shaken by the truth about what is still going on ‘on the ground’ in Malaysia and Indonesia with land clearing and peat bog draining I am heartened to read that the Certification system is now much more robust and is commercially active and viable. Right now more than ever I believe that the best thing that we can do as individuals is look at how much we are buying and wasting and address that, then look at what we are buying and make better choices. As an industry I think we owe it to our children and grandchildren to demand the certified palm in our cosmetics and to place a much higher value on all vegetable feedstock rather than see it as a case of ‘anything is better than petroleum so let’s party’. No, no it is not.   As you can probably guess from above in spite of palm falling short of Rapeseed and Sunflower in the report that I’ve cited I still see it as a better potential source of vegetable feedstock but now it has more conditions:

  • The palm industry must, must, must stop encouraging the draining of peat bogs; no industry is worth the costs of that.
  • Palm must still be able to produce 3-5 times more oil than rape or sunflower WITHOUT increasing its fertilizer/ pesticide burden while being grown on non-peat bog soil to be considered the golden vegetable oil.
  • The palm industry must clean up its processing plants, preferably without consolidating them and then stripping local small businesses of their income. This is to reduce their methane burden.

If those conditions can be met, if the governments of South East Asia can provide the RSPO and public with accurate concession maps and If we, as the general public are really, truly willing to firstly address our consumption habits and secondly pay more for what we truly need then yes, I’d still back palm but only with the caveat that we only have one planet and that insatiable appetites ALWAYS lead to destruction.  And as for the question ‘can we ever farm responsibly’ well that cuts to the very chase of the human greed issue and sadly I’m not sure that we ever really can but I do hope I’m wrong.

And that’s what I think.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2016 2:07 pm

    Thanks Amanda for writing a well thought out commentary on this very complicated issue.

    Regarding the study you quote in which the impact of different crops is compared, I’m wondering whether the impact on biodiversity was taken into account? Since much palm cultivation is carried out on virgin land following slash and burn, the long term impact of permanent disruption of ecosystems should surely be considered when assessing the impact of different crops? Some might argue that permanent loss of a unique habitat, such as that which occurs when growing perhaps the majority of palm crops, should be a factor. Some might rate its importance higher than fossil fuel/fertiliser/pesticide/yield efficiencies since loss of biodiversity is potentially permanent, with unforeseen long term effects on the world’s ecosystems. From that viewpoint it might be environmentally preferable to grow less efficient crops on already degraded land, rather than destroy virgin forest for the sake of efficiency. It all depends on what weight is given to efficiency versus permanent loss of habitat, the latter being far more difficult to measure. The case would be different for certified sustainable palm, presuming it may only be grown on already cleared land.

    Secondly, I am very keen to find out more detail on certified sustainable palm – it is encouraging to hear that certified palm is considered truly sustainable. RSPO is clearly not adequate assurance. Do you have a good reference for the criteria used for this certification? You mentioned 3 areas in which palm needs to clean up – no draining bogs, higher yields than rape or sunflower, and clean processing plants. Does certified palm meet these criteria? Or does it refer solely to whether the palm was grown on previously cleared land? Are companies now producing cosmetic ingredients made solely from sustainable palm?

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      January 19, 2016 3:42 pm

      Hi there, In one of the references (I actually can’t remember which one) there is a table which explains the markets for land and categorises it into things like Arable land, intensive forest, extensive forest, grassland and barren land. The land is given a value based on the impact of land-use-change and if I remember correctly the value really focuses on the net carbon impact (or more extensively global warming impact possibly, I can’t remember) of using that land for cropping. In this model virgin forest would be more impactful and environmentally costly than land that is already arable. Doing it this way levels the playing field in that regard. However, you do make a great point about biodiversity and one that may well be more important than the easier-to-measure carbon footprint model. I can’t recall there being any ranking or value given to how a decision to change land use impacts biodiversity, I imagine that would be hard to quantify in simple terms which is a tragedy. I can see that doing what makes the most sense from a biodiversity perspective in terms of crop selection makes a lot of sense but have a feeling that it might well be too hard to account for. If biodiversity protection was the chosen measure then any crop would have to be light on pesticide/ fertilizer use too so as to be bee friendly. In terms of certified palm I would encourage you to look up the Palm Oil Investigators and the RSPO as between them your questions can be answered. The Palm Oil Investigators are great for helping to make sense of the mass balance/ certified scheme and what that actually means.

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