Palm Fruit Oil and Sustainability: Finding a Better Way

The sun rises cutting through the misty fog covering the Upper Valley as I stumble toward the smell of fresh ground 1936 Blend, the aroma luring me out of my heavy-eyed hazy daze. I take my first sip and feel the warming sensation wash over me. I lean into my cup for another taste and am filled with a warm feeling, knowing I’ve chosen a fairly traded coffee blend. We can feel good about where we’ve chosen to invest our dollars, because we know the small farmer who produced this product received a fair income. When a product is authentic fair trade, it is deliberately designed from start to finish to fairly advance the economic, social, and environmental goals of a community. Authentic fair trade is about lifting our farmers into a fair and sustainable market that considers the future of not only the farmer and their local community but the global community as well. But, what about the invisible crops that we use every day and are in nearly everything? Like palm oil?

Palm oil is grown in tropical regions, much like bananas, coffee, cocoa, mangoes, and many other easily identifiable fair trade items. So why then is palm oil not as easy to identify as coffee or bananas? Because palm oil is not the end product. After all it’s not what we go out to the grocery store for. However, palm oil is in nearly everything it seems these days. From beauty products to the prepackaged convenience foods that keep us on the go, and everything in between. With every purchase we make, on a deeper level, we’re condoning a company’s behavior. It tells them we the consumers like how they’re doing business. If the company is a socially responsible company, we can show our support by choosing to pay the small price difference we see in these items that are fairly traded. The nominal price difference for goods that are fair trade not only support the sustainable practices being used but allows for these communities to have access to healthcare, education, and less exposure to dangerous chemicals that are traditionally used in large agro-business crop production.

No one wants a company to take advantage of a community’s resources, to pay farmers unfairly, or to leave these communities with an unsustainable future, all while keeping the profits for themselves. We, as consumers, can do better than that, for our community, the global community, and future of our planet. 

Right now palm oil is not a primarily fair-trade product. Though it is woven into nearly every aspect of life in developed countries and the demand is only rising, it is an incredibly difficult crop to certify as there is not a structure in place to do this. While there are organizations like the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), Serendipalm, and Palm Done Right attempting to level the playing field for the small farmers producing tons of the world’s palm oil, it is not enough. “The lack of knowledge and the lack of financial resources continue to be a barrier” (Brandi) for small farmers. No one should have to decide between putting food on the table and preserving the environment around them.

Imagine an area no bigger than New England and New York combined producing 86,325,309 metric tonnes of oil palm fruit. That is what Malaysia alone produced in 2016. Of the nearly 87 million metric tonnes of oil palm fruit produced, a disproportionately large amount was produced with unsustainable practices. These unsustainable farming practices lead to biodiversity loss, disregarded rights and welfare of communities, and unequal distribution of economic success in areas like Malaysia, Côte l’lvoire (the Ivory Coast), and Papua New Guinea.  Small farmers are trying to pump out oil palm and palm fruit in unimaginable quantities in order to be paid enough to survive, just to provide core countries like the United States, the European Union, Canada, Japan, and Australia with the “essential ingredient” in novelty and convenience items without the fair wages or access to the proper tools and knowledge to farm the crops in a sustainable way.

Despite a growing demand, palm oil has the propensity to be a sustainable crop, as well as catch its own carbon release within 60 years. It is capable of producing 4-10 times more oil than other vegetable oil crops per unit of cultivated land, making it the most efficient vegetable oil crop (2018).  With proper techniques palm oil would thrive in the grassland/scrublands (Smit) that have previously been deemed undesirable. These tracts of land are far less biologically diverse. This change would shift oil palm from a leading cause of deforestation to a sustainable crop capable of sequestering carbon. “Multiple studies have shown that the palm expansion doesn’t need to be the leading force of deforestation in tropical areas” (Smit). These alternative lands simply cost too much for a small farmer to start up on their own. And while there is research into and discussions about what method would be the most sustainable, none of it will happen if larger companies don’t start being proactive and sharing the tools and knowledge to help farmers become certified. Large companies must make it possible for small farmers to sustainably and equitably grow crops in the less desirable grasslands to provide this crop to the rest of the world.

So what can we do as individuals to help the small farmers that truly feed the world? I’d like to think just by learning more and being inspired, can be the start of changing the status quo. Below is a list of links to start your journey into the world of palm oil. Being a conscientious and informed shopper is the most powerful tool we have. Wield your super power and defend small farmers, fair trade, and sustainable practices with your everyday shopping decisions. And remember, Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” -Margaret Mead

Learn more about sustainable palm and the palm industry in the links below:


Brandi, C., Cabani, T., Hosang, C., Schirmbeck, S., Westermann, L., & Wiese, H. (2015). Sustainability Standards for Palm Oil. The Journal of Environment & Development, 24(3), 292-314. doi:10.1177/1070496515593775

Brandi, Clara. (2016). Sustainability Standards and Sustainable Development – Synergies and Trade-Offs of Transnational Governance. Sustainable Development. 25. 10.1002/sd.1639.

Smit HH, Meijaard E, van der Laan C, Mantel S, Budiman A, et al. (2013) Breaking the Link between Environmental Degradation and Oil Palm Expansion: A Method for Enabling Sustainable Oil Palm Expansion. PLoS ONE 8(9): e68610. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0068610

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