A Short 5 minute video to begin
Some basic facts about palm oil:
- It is an example of a single issue campaign
- About half of our food products contain palm oil.
- It has contributed to mass deforestation in Indonesian rain forests and is subsequently playing a role in the displacement and subsequent loss of indigenous wildlife such as orangutans, a species on the edge of extinction, while also contributing to the displacement of local civilian populations.
- Worker exploitation and child labor are common practice in the palm industry.
- Deforestation also contributes to global warming, by promoting the release of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere (co2 etc..).
- This has prompted the formation of a number of global campaigns imploring the public to boycott the oil product (e.g., the “Say no to Palm Oil” campaign).
The current debate on palm oil is one founded on a rising public concern for the health of our planet and its ecosystems. As a result, there are a growing number of individuals both vegan and non-vegan choosing to boycott the vegetable oil in an effort to stop the destruction of the rain forests to make way for oil plantations and the subsequent dying out of the forest’s indigenous wildlife as well as local populations.
While in one respect it is encouraging to witness the more compassionate and seemingly good-natured elements of society unite for what may appear on the surface a morally righteous cause; that individuals do harbor the capacity to set their minds to something greater than themselves, I am nonetheless concerned by virtue of the fact that the palm oil debate fails to address the real moral issues at hand by prioritizing one instance of ecological and human harm at the cost of all others, while also seeking a simple solution to an inherently complex issue with multiple contributing factors from industrial farming methods, and illegal logging to the issue of a rising global population and an increasing demand for cheap, convenience foods. Moreover, the debate brings to light the power of ideology, persuasive marketing, and discourse in sculpting our inconsistent viewpoints on what merits our moral judgment when it comes to the animal rights debate as well as environmental dilemmas.
I will explore some of these areas below.
Single Issue Campaigns and Speciesism
The poignant nature of the media content presented by anti-palm oil campaigners is without doubt, the most memorable being those graphic images that capture the devastating mass fires which plague indonesian rain forests, as well as those photographs which depict orangutans, almost childlike and so utterly helpless, clenched to the remains of a dilapidated tree. However, in spite of the undoubtedly tragic nature of such images, it is vital that we acknowledge that this devastation is merely one of a whole host of instances in which animals are exploited for the shallow gains of humankind, instances that fail to make the media headlines, hidden in the shadows of public awareness.
Animal rights campaigner and founder of the abolitionist approach to animal rights, Professor Gary Francione has argued that the palm oil debate is yet another example of “speciesism”, in the same way that all other “single issue campaigns” imply that one case of animal exploitation merits prioritization, thus delegitimizing or subordinating all other like cases. By fixating society’s attention on the plight of the orangutan, anti-palm oil campaigns in turn encourage the formation an imagined value system or hierarchy within society, one determined by something as arbitrary as species. This serves to deny the existence or overshadow other unsung narratives of other animals that also merit our support and moral concern such as the billions of animals used for human consumption, entertainment, and commercial products such as makeup and household products on an annual basis. As aptly noted by The Legacy Of Pythagoras “by promoting the cause of orangutans in relation to palm oil, we reinforce the idea – particularly in the eyes of nonvegans – that some animals are more important than others.”, in spite of their common status as sentient, feeling beings with a mutual desire to live.
Francione contends that campaigns such as the struggle to ban palm oil will all be in vein if we don’t first address the underlying root cause of the issue; namely the property status of animals. We must first reject this definition of animals by becoming vegan. As long as animals are seen as a means to an end, a commodity in the eyes of the law, they will never be accorded the protections which welfarists (see my article on welfarism) so persistently seek. There will always be shortfalls in the long, toilsome effort to accord protections and rights in such situations as the palm oil dilemma amongst many others, and this comes down to the fact that the property status of animals is incompatible with the aims of welfarists.
In relation to animals accidentally killed in the harvesting of food crops, a similar instance of unintentional harm to that of palm oil, Gary Francione affirms that “If we all went vegan because we cared morally about nonhumans, that would necessarily translate into methods of crop production that would be more mindful of incidental and unintended deaths.” Furthermore, if we were all to stop eating animals, and laws were implemented that would grant animals the right to equal treatment, the morality of issues such as the palm oil dilemma would come under intense scrutiny; because in such a world where animals are granted this fundamental right of personhood, society could no longer ignore such issues.
Moreover, as observed by animal rights activist “Grumpy Old Vegan”, if animal agriculture was to cease, there would also be a colossal amount of land “freed up for planting palm and other crops because as we know, it takes many times more land to produce a pound of animal protein than it does to produce a pound of plant protein” (See Grumpy Old Vegan Facebook page). This would provide a safety net for society in the context of the predicted world population growth over the next number of decades; in light of the fact that “the world is going to need another Malaysia’s worth of oil palm plantations to be planted to meet growing demand.” Thus, even if a quarter of the population went vegan, just imagine what an impact we could make upon the health of our ecosystems.
A Case of Moral Schizophrenia in non-Vegans?
While working as a sales assistant in a local health food store, I was frequently met with non-vegans seeking products free from palm oil; and while I admired their concern, it nonetheless appeared deeply ironic to me that those same people who see palm oil as an act of plain moral injustice are perfectly happy to satiate their appetites with a pig slaughtered at their expense, what could be defined as merely another insufficient justification for taking an animal’s life, namely for the sake of palate pleasure, habit and convenience.
Moreover, billions of animals in the agricultural industry are intentionally mutilated, traded and slaughtered on an annual basis for the sake of human palate pleasure in comparison to the modest 1000 to 5000 orangutans involuntarily killed in the palm oil industry. In addition, animal agriculture has by far the largest impact on rain forests, being responsible for the destruction of 90% of the world’s rain forests, in comparison to the modest contribution of palm oil (26 million acres cleared for palm oil versus 136 million for animal agriculture). Thus, if such individuals truly cared for their planet and its rain forests their primary goal should be to commit to a vegan diet first and foremost; veganism should form the moral baseline of all that is to follow.
Why Boycotting Won’t Help
1.Firstly, over half of the palm oil imported by the EU is used for biofuel, so avoiding supermarket products containing the fat is inefficient in completely eliminating the demand.
2. A large proportion is also used for livestock feed (yet another reason to go vegan!). According to the Guardian “More than a tenth of the world’s palm kernel meal, a by-product of palm oil, is fed to British pets and livestock”(See “UK animal feed helping to destroy Asian rainforest”)
3. Also, according to the charity Orangutan SOS, boycotting palm oil could drive its price down. It would then become more attractive for biofuels and livestock feed, and possibly lead to increased demand, especially in India and China, the biggest importers of palm oil.
4. Moreover, according to Orangutan SOS, a charity dedicated to restoring the fading orangutan populations in the Sumata rainforests, “Avoiding palm oil may not help orang-utans” as it is the most productive oil with the highest yield in comparison to the alternatives such as rapeseed, olive and soybean oil which would necessitate the use of more land as well as fertilizers and pesticides for the same amount of oil (10 times more land is needed in the case of soybean oil). Therefore, if everyone was to boycott palm, this would excite the need for food companies to seek alternatives to replace it, all of which are far less sustainable. As noted by The Green Vegans the issue is not palm oil itself but rather “the huge demand for vegetable oils and the lack of free agricultural land. Consumers want lots of cheap products and to produce those, a lot of land is needed.” Therefore, consuming less and limiting our carbon footprint by going vegan is by far the best solution in dealing with the palm oil crisis.
Is Palm oil Vegan?
In case I haven’t made the answer obvious clear by this stage I will try to reiterate in order to join the dots.
Palm oil in itself is a plant-based food, so in technical terms, it is absolutely vegan; however, it has come under fire in the vegan universe as a result of the “Say No to Palm” campaign. This anti-palm stance is logically flawed as it appears to arbitrarily prioritize one instance of incidental harm over others, while naively implying that palm oil is the only domain within plant based agriculture that entails human rights violations, incidental harm to animals and environmental destruction. Moreover, those vegans who choose to boycott palm oil, if they wish to be logically consistent, would also have to consider discontinuing their use of a myriad of other tropical, plantation-grown fruits such as bananas, mangos, and cocoa, as well as agricultural commodities such as grains and vegetables, the point being that every form of agriculture will have some sort of a negative impact on the environment; thus, it is worth stating as Gary Francione once contended “nobody’s hands [not even vegans] are blood free”. Only when we combat the property status of animals will the moral issue of incidental harm inflicted upon animals killed unintentionally in tillage industries and tropical plantations be taken seriously. Moreover, According to the Vegan Society “campaigns have focused solely on the negative effects of palm oil, other types of crop farming, which cause harm to many animals, are overlooked”
In relation to human rights violations and slavery committed within the palm oil industry, many of the commodities vegans so religiously consume have entailed equal degrees of human suffering; take brazil nuts, sugar cane production, avocados, tomatoes, chocolate and coffee as some examples. Therefore, boycotting palm on the basis of human rights violations committed within the palm industry makes as little sense as boycotting palm whilst consuming animal products. Both instances are logically incoherent as they arbitrarily prioritize isolated instances of moral injustice, while diverting attention from all other equally morally reprehensible instances of exploitation and oppression.
But what about RSPO certified palm Oil?
The Roundtable for Sustainable palm oil (RSPO) is a non-for-profit led initiative that was established in 2001 as a means of monitoring the palm industry supply chain in order to guarantee minimum damage to rainforest habitats, better labor rights and more sustainable methods of production. While at the outset, this may sound like a pretty good solution to the current ecologically disastrous industry standards, the initiative, like many other industry-led movements has nonetheless fallen short in its capacity to effectively translate policy into action; to transcend the economic and financial interests which so often undermine and corrupt initiatives founded on good will and a determination to do right. Listed below are just some of the RSPO’s shortfalls, as detailed in the RSPO and ISPA certification overview conducted by friends of the earth in 2018.
1. “RSPO standards don’t appear to be saving a very large area of forest. The RSPO certification had no causal impact on forest loss in peatlands or active fire detection rates.”
2. It has done little in the way of promoting or protecting labor rights-worker issues include forced labour, wages below the minimum standard, regular worker exposure to dangerous, toxic chemicals, child labour, the prohibition of workers unions and female discrimination.
It engages in land grabbing practices
3.It permits the establishment of plantations on peatland
4. It also does not prohibit the use of forests deemed secondary forests,
5. It has shown a failure to adequately audit companies or penalize them when they break the rules (See Ethical Consumer).
6. “RSPO certification does not guarantee that the palm oil is sustainable. Greenpeace pointed out that RSPO certification offers no traceability of the origins of fresh fruit bunch (FFB) supply to a CPO mill.
Verdict: Put more pressure on the RSPO to better its policies and practices but still endorse veganism as the most effective path to a more sustainable future.
For more information see pages 1-3 of the following: http://www.foeeurope.org/sites/default/files/eu-us_trade_deal/2018/report_profundo_rspo_ispo_external_concerns_feb2018.pdf
Key take-home message
Going vegan is one of the best ways to combat the palm oil crisis as it will
- redefine animals as morally significant in the eyes of the law and therefore
compel crop farmers and tropical plantation companies to go to greater lengths in the effort to reduce incidental harm to indigenous wildlife.
- free up a colossal amount of land for palm oil use in the absence of a need to make space for agricultural farming and palm for animal feed.
Only when we combat the property status of animals will the moral issue of incidental harm inflicted upon animals killed unintentionally in tillage industries and tropical plantations be taken seriously.
Therefore, the foremost aim of the vegan activist should be to promote VEGANISM. I cannot emphasize that enough. Veganism must form the MORAL BASELINE of all that is to follow.
- Go Vegan and educate others on its benefits, not only for ones health but also for the health and preservation of our environment and its animals.
- Reduce your carbon footprint by consuming less, particularly processed foods-Live longer and save the planet.
- Reject single issue campaigns as they are inherently speciesist in their promotion of the cause of a single species over all other equally sentient, equally suffering species.