'Why Avoiding Palm Oil Is Not the Solution'
In Conversation With Jaboury Ghazoul, ETH Professor of Ecosystem Management
Our key takeaways
Oil palm development has led to the destruction of undisturbed rainforest in Southeast Asia. The whole picture, however, is more complex. In many cases, oil palm plantations have been cultivated on former rice paddies, logging areas and more recently on former rubber plantations. Hence, the oil palm is often not the immediate cause of deforestation for it is much cheaper to establish plantations in areas that require no forest clearing.
There has been a lot of effort worldwide to establish standards for sustainable palm oil. The internationally recognized Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), sets best practices for the production and sourcing of palm oil. At the national level, Indonesia and Malaysia have their own palm oil sustainability standards. These national minimal standards do not have the international buy-in, but on the plus side, they are mandatory. For many plantations, especially small-scale farms, it is more realistic to reach the national minimal standards in a first step rather than being RSPO certified at once.
An European Union ban of palm oil in biodiesel may weaken the sustainability efforts in the palm oil sector. Europe has a huge leverage in promoting best practices. Banning or restricting palm oil imports may weaken Europe’s influence in the sector, with the oil being exported to other countries with less stringent requirements. Overall, avoiding palm oil is not a solution as it is by far the most efficient vegetable oil to produce, yielding more oil per land area than any other vegetable oil. As a globally traded commodity, responsibilities should also be taken along its supply chain and by associated banks and investors.
Jaboury Ghazoul, Professor of Ecosystem Management at ETH Zurich, is a tropical plant ecologist, working on plant ecology and land use change. Jaboury's main research interests are pollination ecology, forest and landscape restoration, ecosystem services and, more generally, conservation management. His wider interests include geology, marine biology and political history. Currently, Jaboury holds the Prince Bernhard Chair of International Nature Conservation of the Utrecht University in collaboration with WWF Netherlands. Since 2014 he is a member of the Expert Committee on Forest Science (UK Forest Commission). Before he was President of the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) from 2014-2016.