Use of palm oil: a fat dilemma

Using fats other than palm oil would be more unecological, WWF says. The organization is itself under criticism for its role in the industry.

WWF ignores social problems of palm oil cultivation, critics say Photo: Desmond Boylan

"You have to stop eating Nutella" – that was how France’s Environment Minister Segolène Royal once called for a boycott of products containing palm oil. Royal later apologized to Ferrero for the chocolate ban – but many environmentalists are in favor of doing without the ecologically and socially highly controversial cultivation of palm oil.

But a blanket boycott would be the wrong way to go, shows a new study by the WWF: Replacing the oil with other vegetable oils in Germany could even worsen the ecological consequences, concludes the environmental organization in the report, which will be published on Tuesday.

According to the study, replacing palm oil with coconut, soybean, sunflower and rapeseed oil would increase global land requirements by around 1.4 million hectares. The increased land requirement occurs because oil palm is much more productive than most other crops.

The higher land requirement and one-off land use changes as a result would also cause CO2 emissions to rise sharply. The WWF has calculated a total of around 309 million tons of additional emissions. Such a scenario would also put animal and plant species at even greater risk.

Endangered orangutans

Replacing palm oil exclusively with domestic rapeseed oil would be better for biodiversity. However, an additional area of 730,000 hectares would then be needed for cultivation in Germany, says WWF palm oil expert Ilka Petersen.

That is one of the problems of cultivation: "It grows around the equator, where there is also the highest biodiversity," explains Petersen. About 85 percent of the world’s palm oil production comes from Malaysia and Indonesia. Rainforest is cleared for plantations, depriving animals such as the endangered orangutan of their habitat. The palm oil sector is also highly controversial from a social perspective: There are repeated reports of indigenous people being evicted from their land, for example.

Ilka Petersen, WWF

"Less fatty, sweet, ready-made, less meat".

Overall, the data situation for the palm oil industry is quite uncertain, she said. However, WWF has found that a large proportion of domestic consumption goes into the tank: 41 percent is in biodiesel, according to the report. Another 40 percent of German consumption is used by the food industry.

Renunciation instead of substitution

That’s why WWF is calling for people to stop using biofuels made from palm oil – and to rethink their own shopping habits. "Less fat, sweets, ready-made products, less meat," summarizes WWF spokesperson Petersen – because palm oil fat is often used in ready-made products, sweets and animal feed.

The environmentalists emphasize that half of Germany’s palm oil requirements could be saved in this way. For the other 50 percent, they call above all for better cultivation conditions – politicians, too, should work to ensure that imports into the EU meet social and ecological standards.

The certification with the widest scope is the RSPO standard, which, however, also currently accounts for only 17 percent of global palm oil consumption. The WWF is a co-founder of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), whose members include major corporations such as Unilever. But the certification criteria are far removed from an eco-label. They are only "minimum requirements," also emphasizes the WWF.

WWF is criticized

Even if environmentalists agree with demands to do without biofuel made from palm oil, for example – many view the organization skeptically because of its support for the RSPO seal: "RSPO is greenwashing," says Mathias Rittgerott, campaigner at the association "Save the Rainforest." "The biggest environmental destroyers are sitting at the table there."

Oliver Pye, who conducts research on palm oil at the University of Bonn, also criticizes WWF’s closeness to industry. The organization repeats "well-known arguments that have been produced for years by the propaganda department of the Malaysian palm oil industry, the Malaysian Palm Oil Council," Pye warns. The fact that the palm oil plant is so productive does not change the fact that the destruction of rainforests destroys a "unique biodiversity.

Above all, however, the researcher is bothered by the fact that the WWF does not take into account the social, political and societal power relations. It is true that the WWF requires companies to use palm oil that meets "strict social and ecological criteria." That’s not enough for Pye: He advocates working with "smallholder associations and trade unions." "We should support their struggles, not their opponents."

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