Organic palm oil? Organic soya?
January 18, 2013 2:59 AM   Subscribe

What does it mean for palm oil and soya to be 'organically farmed'? Is it ethical to buy products with organic palm oil in? (I know that in general palm oil is bad news and I try to avoid it.)

This question was inspired by the ten minutes I recently spent deliberating over two brands of vegan margarine, trying to decide which one was least awful or if both were fine. I eventually bought the tub that cost one Swiss franc less.

I want to get better at avoiding rainforest soya and palm oil in general, but I just don't understand what difference their being 'organic' makes or how to decide on a least-bad option. Choosing more ethical products is my first priority and health is a second priority; I'm (mostly) vegan so I'm not concerned, here, with rainforest soya used as animal feed. Links to longer-form guides or articles would be great. Thanks!
posted by daisyk to Science & Nature (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
"Is it ethical to ... ?" is not a question anyone else can answer for you. Organic certification means very different things in different jurisdictions, but generally implies a reduction or absence in the use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilisers produced via a certain poorly-defined set of chemical synthesis techniques. Some organic produce is produced by people using techniques which reduce damage to soil, landscapes and hydrology, but it's not usually obligatory to do so to in order to have organic certification. The same is true for animal treatment.

There is nothing to stop someone clear-cutting acres of virgin forest, planting oil palm with de facto slave labour, diverting an upstream river for an irrigation source, eutrophying a downstream lake with huge overapplications of simple fertilisers, and then putting a happy monkey on the packaging and applying for organic certification.

In short, the only way you can tell what processes are proscribed in the production of your organic item is to consult the policies of whichever body has certified it as organic, and then hope that inspection is effective and that no one in a third country has bribed their way into the supply chain.

If you really want to avoid being complicit in oil palm rainforest destruction, don't buy products with palm oil in.
posted by cromagnon at 3:29 AM on January 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

It entirely depends on the standard in question.

What's the accreditation? Does the marge list by what standard the marge is rated? In the US there's three levels of organic certification, for a start, and different countries have different standards, so depending on where it was produced there's going to be different standards at play.

Honestly, the way the food production chain works, and how hard it is to track the origin of any one ingredient, I'd skip anything with palm oil in it altogether. It's entirely possible to produce organic food unethically, as cromagnon mentions above. Organic just means grown without synthetic inputs.

I'd actually go with olive oil based spreads if I were you. Olive oil is not the sort of thing you can grow from a quick cut-and-burn field, as it takes years for the plant to mature enough to bear fruit. Odds are good where you are that you'll wind up with a mostly Mediterranean sourced food product.
posted by Jilder at 3:40 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

The rules for organic certification for Switzerland can be found here (in French but there's a German and Italian version too). Since palm and soy oil are not produced there you may look at the importation manual.
In any case, organic soybean oil available in Switzerland is more likely to come from producers based in Europe (France, Spain and Italy) where organic farming is strictly regulated. Organic palm oil mostly comes from Colombia, where regulations are different, and from a single producer who has been criticized in the past years.
posted by elgilito at 4:36 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

From what I have heard there is pretty much no such thing as environmentally friendly palm oil. Some of it is less awful, but it's all pretty much grown in cleared rainforest.
posted by Slinga at 5:31 AM on January 18, 2013

Yeah. Unless I specifically knew otherwise, I would assume that "organic" means "grown without pesticides or possibly artificial fertilizers, but still on top of what was very recently a rainforest." I would avoid it.
posted by Scientist at 6:17 AM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Please bear in mind that "organic" does not mean "no pesticides, fungicides, or other -cides". There is no such thing as a farmer who doesn't use them. It simply means that the pesticides and other such treatments are "natural". For example, rotenone is a permissible organic pesticide under EU regulation.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:34 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Please bear in mind that "organic" does not mean "no pesticides, fungicides, or other -cides". There is no such thing as a farmer who doesn't use them.

That's not true. I worked at an organic farm in the US, and we didn't use any -cides, only fertilizers and other healthy soil methods, as well as physical methods for retarding weeds/pests, such as covering plots with sheets. This was a ~10-acre farm, so I assume likelihood of such decreases with size, but it's not categorically true that all farmers use pesticides/herbicides, either natural or otherwise.
posted by threeants at 7:59 AM on January 18, 2013

Thank you all for the answers. cromagnon, that was what I expected to hear, really. I'm not really a believer in organic farming and don't usually go out of my way to buy organic foods, but I suppose I was hoping that by some miracle, the organic certification on palm oil was based on the wider effect of the farming, not just the immediate techniques used. Oh well.

elgilito, your links are very helpful. Luckily for me, the supermarkets here are very keen on organic food and even the own-brand soya milk and tofu are organic. They don't all state the country of origin but when they do, it's often Italy.

I will write to Provamel (the manufacturer of the margarine I bought) and ask them about the origin of their palm oil, mostly because I'm annoyed that they have lots of information on their website about where their soya comes from and nothing at all about palm oil. I'll just avoid that marge in the future, though.
posted by daisyk at 1:17 PM on January 18, 2013

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