With the world’s attention focused on the global pandemic of the coronavirus, it may seem an unusual time for me to write an article about palm oil. “What’s the connection?” you may ask. The most widely proposed theory regarding the source of the coronavirus is that it most likely came from wildlife traded in so-called “wet markets” in China and spilled over to humans. It would not be the first time that zoonotic transmission of pathogens (when diseases emerge in non-human animals and are passed onto humans) led to massive outbreaks around the world. In fact, it is believed that more than half of all human pathogens are believed to be zoonotic.
In this article I’d like to share my perspective on the role of the palm oil industry in the emergence of pandemics, how conventional production is still a threat, and how sustainable palm oil truly is the only way forward.
Coronavirus and Deforestation
Scientists have been researching what it is that brings humans in contact with non-human animals resulting in diseases like Covid-19. It is more than simply a case of hunting and selling of wildlife. Overwhelmingly, the evidence points to disturbance of ecosystems. Researchers from IPBES recently reported that, “Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spill-over of diseases from wildlife to people.” As human densities increase, more encroachment on natural habitat by people as well as domesticated animals results in more frequent contact with wildlife that may be carrying pathogens. Furthermore, the assault on biodiverse ecosystems can influence how many viruses exist in the wild and how they behave. When species at the top of the food chain disappear, the result is a proliferation of those species lower down the food chain (such as bats and rats) which tend to carry more pathogens. The disruption of habitat also means that these species, with their diseases, may be forced to go elsewhere included areas populated by people.
Looking at the history
The clearing of forest for oil palm in the past has resulted in deadly transmission of disease. The Environmental Investigation Agency mentions three notable examples:
- When Indonesia burned much of its forest for palm oil plantations in the 1990s, bats harbouring the Nipah virus flew to Malaysian farms to feed on fruit trees. The disease jumped from bats to people via pigs – and had a human mortality rate of up to 74 per cent.
- The clearing of forests for palm oil plantations in West Africa also led to spill-over of the Lassa virus, which triggers a haemorrhagic fever like Ebola in humans and can kill 30 per cent of the infected.
- A recent study directly linked an increase in forest clearance for palm oil production in Malaysian Borneo to an increase in malaria.
Working towards a solution
It’s no secret that the conventional production of palm oil is responsible for massive deforestation in areas of immense biodiversity. In the past two decades, millions of hectares of forest have been cleared for this crop. The impact on wildlife, ecosystem services, the climate and on people cannot be ignored. Acknowledgment of these issues led NGOs and progressive companies in the palm oil supply chain to form the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in 2004, with a view to defining how to cultivate palm oil sustainably. Today, the comprehensive, but voluntary, RSPO standard delivers on civil society and market demands for No Deforestation, No Peat Conversion and No Exploitation (NDPE).
Yet only 20% of global production of palm oil is currently certified sustainable by the RSPO. Many large companies have pledged to halt deforestation in their supply chains, including palm oil, soy, timber and pulp, through initiatives like the Consumer Goods Forum but have failed to deliver on these pledges. There is simply no excuse for manufacturers and retailers to source anything less than 100% certified sustainable palm oil through one or more of the four supply chain options offered by the RSPO. Unless companies sourcing palm oil make the distinction and choose exclusively sustainable palm oil, there will be little incentive for oil palm growers to become (or remain) certified as sustainable. And until they do, they can be seen as complicit in jeopardising millions of lives of people around the world through their failure to remove deforestation and biodiversity loss from their supply chains.
Covid-19 and other recent pandemics are the result of careless human activity, often in the pursuit of economic growth at any cost. This should be a wake-up call that we simply cannot continue “business-as-usual,” and we must take the responsibility to make the right choices moving forward. We must demand sustainable agricultural production and development, including oil palm, that protects both people and forests.