At our company’s Kick Off Meeting for this year, I wanted to motivate my colleagues about sustainability, to imbue them with a lofty purpose and make them feel good about working in a palm oil company.

ILLUSTRATION. Workers loads palm oil to vehicle at a plantation.

This is more difficult than it sounds precisely because the rest of the world outside of Asia seems to think that palm oil is a horrid product that is responsible for large scale deforestation, habitat loss and social injustice.

So I made everyone perform a thought experiment by trying to envision a world without palm oil. In this world the only edible oil crops were from soy, corn, sunflower and rape seed. The world they saw was one where an additional 90 million hectares of forests, peatlands, grasslands and animal habitat would have to be cleared because the other crops need 6 times more land than palm oil to produce the same amount of edible oil the world needs. 90 million hectares is equivalent in size to the total area of France and Belgium combined. There would be no room for cities, houses, airports or even farms for other produce … no champagne or wine from Bordeaux either …only one monotonous planting of either soy, corn sunflower or rape seed… not even a place for the bulk of the world’s French speaking population to live…

To put it into the context of Indonesia, you’d have to clear all of Kalimantan, Java and half of Sumatra for those crops. As many as 200 million Indonesians would be displaced, as well as all the orangutan and other wildlife in those areas. Would there be enough space left to accommodate everyone in Papua, Bali, Maluku, Nusa Tenggara and Sulawesi?

No European, especially the French speaking ones (France and Belgium), would allow themselves to be displaced…. Hence, in this alternate universe where there is no palm oil…. we would all be faced with a sharp spike in the price of edible oils as there would not be enough land to plant the crops and therefore not enough oil to go around. Sadly, those who are less affluent, especially in developing countries would be griping at the astronomical prices; they would no longer be able to afford a basic commodity as cooking oil.

And if you can afford it, you would be consuming genetically modified vegetable oils, as much of Corn, Soy and Rapeseed now are. This is not necessarily a bad thing for humankind, except that these oils all contain trans fats, something that palm oil is naturally devoid of. Heart disease would be very common among the affluent in a world without palm oil.

In the end, the team could not imagine a world without palm oil. Neither could I. The fact is, the world actually ducked the proverbial environmental bullet with the advent of Palm Oil and it has been unfairly singled out to be the main perpetrator for deforestation, habitat loss and social injustices. Palm oil occupies less than 0.04 percent of all the land on earth, to be exact, less than 18 million hectares, and its impact on the environment pales in comparison with the harm done by intensive livestock cultivation.

I reminded my colleagues that while Palm Oil does the world a favor by being the most prolific producer of non GMO edible oils, we still need to continue the journey towards sustainability in Palm Oil. Together with our stakeholders, we need to continue to innovate to increase yields, reduce our impact on the environment, and commit to balanced development to bring positive benefits to the communities around the areas where we operate.

Should we bicker or should we collaborate? As I thought about this I am reminded of a quote from a UNCTAD September 2013 paper entitled “Why Industrial Livestock Farming is Unsustainable” by Joyce D’Silva.

“It is up to individuals, governments, lending banks and global agricultural and food institutions to make ethical choices and drive policies and practices in the right direction. The earth, the animals and fellow humans need such a commitment..” she said.

Which direction can we all work toward?

Author: Denys Collin Munang, Director of Sustainability, Eagle High Plantations

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