By Kenneth Meyer, Stetson University College of Law
The internet is teeming with articles that tell of the atrocities wreaked on Mother Nature by the palm oil industry around the world. The hubbub makes it difficult to hear the voice of reason: find a creative solution: plant sustainable palm oil farms in Florida.
Any informed consumer or environmentalist knows of the palm oil industry’s impact on the environment. Palm oil is a leading cause of deforestation in many parts of the world. Deforestation causes devastating biodiversity loss.
The continuing expansion of palm oil plantations threatens 193 different species that depend on rainforests for their survival. Deforestation also increases carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions.
In response, an environmental movement has sprung up and pushed back against the industry. Critics encourage consumers to boycott palm oil, to buy only sustainably sourced palm oil products, or to make their own palm oil-free products at home.
Finding environmentally friendly palm oil products is not a simple task. Palm oil is found in about 50% of household and food products and is used to make biofuel. Who has the time to make their own palm oil-free chocolate or shampoo?
When compared to alternative vegetable oil sources, palm oil is an attractive choice. Ironically, it is an attractive choice specifically for environmental reasons. Other vegetable oil sources simply cannot compete with the productivity of oil palms.
Oil palm fruit is the highest yield oil crop per hectare. One hectare of land can produce around 2.8 tons of palm oil. The second-best alternatives, sunflower and rapeseed, produce four times less than oil palms, at about only 0.7 tons per hectare.
Additionally, when researchers compared land use for vegetable oil sources, they found that in 2017, although oil palms occupied 8.6% of farmland used for vegetable oil, they produced 36% of the oil. On the other hand, the critically acclaimed soybean accounted for 39% of farmland used for vegetable oil, while producing only 25.5% of the oil.
Despite consumer preference for soybean oil, soybean plantations continue to threaten ecosystems and biodiversity throughout South America.
Ultimately, oil palms use significantly less land but produce significantly more oil than alternative sources. Because oil palms require less land, they also require fewer pesticides and fertilizers than other vegetable oil sources.
Additionally, palm oil has health benefits. Palm oil is high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which promote heart health. Palm oil is also free of trans fats, although it does have more saturated fat than olive oil. Palm oil is also high in vitamins A and E and has antioxidant properties.
What is the solution to the palm oil problem? The oil palm industry is worth over $40 billion. It touches millions of people’s lives across the globe. Rural communities in Indonesia, Malaysia, Africa, and South America have come to depend on the palm oil industry for their livelihoods.
Should governments and consumers ban and boycott such an industry out of existence? Certainly, a problem as complex as this deserves a more nuanced approach.
Because of the productivity of oil palms, palm oil’s widespread use, and its health benefits, abandoning the industry isn’t realistic or desirable. After all, the problem with palm oil is where the palms are planted, not the palm oil itself.
The answer to palm oil’s environmental problem should include supporting sustainable farms. One step would be to start new palm oil plantations in already deforested areas.
Because of its climate, Florida is well suited to produce palm oil. While one new farm in Florida may seem like a drop in the bucket, it could mark the beginning of a new, environmentally friendly, sustainable dawn for the palm oil industry. After all, even a tiny nut can grow into a 66-foot-tall oil palm.
Kenneth Meyer is a third-year student at Stetson University College of Law. His focus area is international law. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.