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  • Writer's pictureNika Gorski

Palm oil nearly killed my dog, but is that social science?

Updated: Nov 23, 2023

While walking back home from the beach, my dog, Maggy, stumbled upon a palm oil deposit at the base of the sand dunes. Before I could reach her, she had already made a large dent in this head-sized white lump. Having seen warnings about dog's dying of palm oil ingestion, I rushed her to the vet and watched as the vets saved her life.

While palm oil isn't a social science issue because it nearly killed my dog, palm oil is a social science issue due to its impact on food insecurity, the displacement of Indigenous Peoples, and deforestation. Let's see how palm oil, a product you interact with every day, is a key factor in social science.

What is palm oil, and do I interact with it?

In Africa and South-East Asia, many farmers grow oil palm trees (Elaeis guineensis) to produce fruit from which crude palm oil and palm kernel oil can be extracted. Once these oils are refined, they are then sent all over the world to make soap soapy, the gears of an engine turn smoothly, and chips (aka crisps) crunchy. Aside from the versatility of palm oil, it is also relatively cheap to produce. A farmer can produce more palm oil with a smaller plot of land than they could by producing soybean, rapeseed, or sunflower oil. So, whether you are eating, showering, cleaning your home, or taking medication, chances are that you are interacting with palm oil, but is that a bad thing?

How palm oil is a social science issue.

Palm oil is revered for its versatile properties and inexpensive nature; however, it has captured headlines for the damaging, destructive, and devastating nature of its production.

Displacing families and their resources.

Some families rely on natural forests for their work, food, and building materials yet, sometimes palm oil farms must destroy these forests to be built, resulting in families losing their livelihoods and access to food and resources. Many times, the Indigenous Peoples occupying this land are not consulted prior to the building of the palm oil plantations, leading to conflicts between the local people and plantations. However, conflict normally does not solve the issues at hand, and families are forced to move even though may not have the money or means to travel or find somewhere else to live and work.

Employing children and cheap labor.

Harming the environment.

What are social scientists doing about this?

By looking at the life cycle of palm oil and understanding each stage of the process, social scientists are researching and identifying ways to make palm oil production less destructive and more sustainable. For example, a non-profit organization called Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has developed principles and criteria for sustainable palm oil production which aim to produce palm oil without deforestation, poor working conditions, and the displacement of Indigenous Peoples. As a consumer you can tell if a product is deemed to be made according to these standards if it has an RSPO label.

Unfortunately, while RSPO's efforts seem strong, the organization has been criticized for products with the RSPO label not being produced according to their certified standards. Whether these instances are due to weak enforcement or poor monitoring, RSPO has made significant strides in the palm oil industry. While their system has not been perfected, their volunteer efforts show that collaboration of multiple stakeholders can lead to the sustainable production of palm oil. The WWF even encourages us to not boycott palm oil but to purchase sustainable palm oil instead. Boycotting would lead us to grow other vegetable oils to replace the use of palm oil, which require more land to produce smaller oil quantities, contributing to more deforestation. Also, the millions of people who rely on palm oil for their livelihood would be out of work, disrupting a massive supply chain.

What can we do about the social impacts of palm oil?

The production and consumption of palm oil is complex. By boycotting palm oil, we would be using other vegetable oils that cause more deforestation and disrupt a massive supply chain. But, by continuing to use unsustainably produced palm oil, we are supporting poor labor practices and the destruction of the environment. All in all, when we look to the sustainable alternative to find that it may not even be sustainably produced, it leads to a difficult choice which all have the same consequences. So, what do we do? We can be a consumer who demands the production of sustainable palm oil to enable RSPO and force other organizations to improve the palm oil production system. Join Maggy and me on our sustainable palm oil journey by continuing to educate yourself and others, purchasing sustainable palm oil if possible, and supporting social science research that aims to find solutions to these global issues.

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