Is Palm Oil Vegan?

There is a lot of discussion about whether palm oil is vegan.  The TL:DR is - palm oil is a plant, it is definitely vegan and if we genuinely want animal liberation, campaigning against it in isolation is actually counter-productive to our aims.  

A lot of people argue that because of the environmental destruction palm oil causes, often with particular mentions of orangutans, that it is not vegan to use or consume palm oil.  But aside from being incorrect - because palm oil is vegan - this is a huge oversimplification of an incredibly complex issue.  To start with, the sheer size of the human population is such that no matter what we eat, it's pretty much impossible to avoid some sort of environmental impact.  So we have to look at the most effective ways to reduce that impact - and singling out specific plants is not the answer.  There are a number of reasons for this:

1. The biggest cause of environmental destruction and species extinction in terms of food production is without a doubt, animal agriculture - by a long shot.  So our priority should be on ending animal agriculture.  If we focus on palm oil or any other specific useful crops rather than ending animal use then we create an extra pressure for new and potential vegans that might make them think twice about ditching their use of animals.  We also give nonvegans yet another excuse (not like they need any more of those!) as to why they should avoid making a change to veganism.  Not only that but if animal agriculture was to come to an end, there'd be a vast 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.

2. Out of all the plant oils, palm oil has by far the highest yield out of any of them (more than double most other oils).  This means it takes up less land to produce the same amount.  Unless humans stop using oils - which is unlikely - then palm oil is actually one of the lesser evils.  It also requires less chemicals and pesticides in its production - which is also a positive in terms of environmental impact compared to other oils.  This article goes into more detail about this particular topic.

3. A lot of palm oil is planted on land that has already been cleared for another purpose - such as illegal logging, or narcotics.  So when the palm oil industry is singled out as the cause, it's not entirely accurate and can be a distraction from a number of very serious environmental problems.

4. Palm oil is a single issue campaign.  Whilst our initial instinct is that single issue campaigns may raise awareness of the plight of some animals, what they invariably end up doing is promoting speciesism and as we know, speciesism leads to people making distinctions between animals they want to protect and animals who they see no problem in harming.  Take for example the narrative of palm oil being associated with orangutans.  There are few people who wouldn't be moved by heart-breaking images of homeless and orphaned orangutans.  However, 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.  For starters, not all palm oil is produced in locations where orangutans are a native species but because people are speciesist, orangutans have been adopted as the poster ‘child’ of the campaign to emotionally manipulate people – there are far more species who are affected by habitat destruction caused by animal agriculture than by a single plant product.  Further, the nonvegan alternatives to palm oil come from a number of farmed animals - butter, lard, dripping etc.  Who are we to say that orangutans are more important than cows, geese, pigs, or ducks?  How can we honestly say that an orangutans value their lives any more than other animals?  We can't.  I seriously recommend having a read of this article about why single issue campaigns are problematic.

5. If you're going to object to palm oil then to be consistent you should probably be objecting to chocolate, bananas, coconuts, mangoes, sugar, and all other crops that come from tropical plantations.  When we put it like that, doesn't it seem a bit crackers to say things like chocolate, bananas, and coconuts aren't vegan?  More on this here.

So to sum up - palm oil comes from a plant, so it's definitely vegan.  Palm oil has its merits, environmentally speaking, compared to other oils.  Palm oil is a single issue campaign that promotes speciesism and can actually distract from or give some people the excuse they were looking for not to become vegan.  That's not to say we shouldn't be conscious about our consumption of palm oil or any other controversial crops but rather that we should recognise that singling out palm oil but ignoring other problematic crops whilst wasting an opportunity to educate about animal agriculture is not the best use of our time and resources if we want to have a maximum impact on animals and the environment.  Veganism is the best chance we have of solving the issues of environmental destruction and species extinction, and therefore we must recognise that no matter how much our heartstrings are pulled, we must be rational and focus on promoting veganism - nothing less will do.

Popular Posts