In June this year the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a globally respected organisation that consists of 1,300 Member organisations, comprising over 10,000 scientists that publishes the annual Red List of Endangered Species, published a report.
One line in particular caught my attention: "... shift from palm oil to other oil crops is not a solution as it may lead to further biodiversity loss”. My immediate reaction was wanting to know who funded this report? A decade ago, IUCN accepted a million dollars from Syngenta, the European leader in genetically modified seeds (now controlled by Chinese capital), with their blunt strategy to control food production – in total disregard of its impact on biodiversity. To me this report on palm oil appeared like yet another sell-out to corporate interests.
The issue of palm oil has been at the top of my agenda since 1993, when on a visit to Malaysia and Indonesia I witnessed the massive destruction of rainforests to make way for palm plantations. The argument then (and being repeated today), was that oil palm produces up to nine times more oil per acre than any other oil crop. As a high-profile producer of biodegradable soaps made from palm oil at the time, I immediately realized that the products produced in my green factory, one constructed from
wood, with employees cycling to work, was not sustainable at all. I was mortified that, by using palm oil, I was responsible for the destruction of the rainforest and the habitat of the orangutan.
There is no way to justify producing palm oil, and IUCN now stretches the argument that the only oil that could respond to rising demand is palm oil, as other less productive crops will require even more forest destruction and would therefore be a greater danger to biodiversity. Over the last two decades, I have been working hard at convincing others to correct this misguided logic of using palm oil (for which I had also fallen, until I came face to face with the reality) that as a monoculture of a non-native species, it completely destroys the habitat of these primates.
Even the certified sustainable corporates (including Unilever) refuse to sacrifice productivity and rejected the proposal of leaving a reserve of a one kilometer-wide corridor of land along rivers untouched, to provide a refuge to the remaining populations of orangutan and pygmy elephant (a subspecies of the Asian elephant).
The core logic advanced by IUCN centers around productivity. For decades, environmental economists have argued unsuccessfully that many industries produce numbers without considering the externalized costs. For example, the demise of existing alternative oil plantations that succumb in this competitive game controlled by a few giants in addition to the biodiversity loss, is not considered in any calculations. The fact that "we put an orangutan in our tank", blending palm oil in gasoline (especially in Europe) only worsens the overall impact of palm oil IUCN is now lending itself to offer a blanket of legitimacy.
The greatest surprise, however, is that IUCN does not mention natural marine oils. The sea covers 70% of Earth, and when we view this three-dimensionally, the immense amount of space it offers represents more than 98% of the useful area of the planet for cultivation.
There are an estimated 5,000 species of macro-algae, and scientists agree that at least 3,000 species have not yet been studied or described. The species that we already know of are capable of producing a multiple of the 2.7 tons of palm oil per hectare per year, which IUCN claims is the most productive on Earth. This claim is, unfortunately, unsubstantiated, as the most productive oil crop is derived from seaweed.
This high level of oil productivity of seaweed, of minimum 10 tons of oil per hectare, is easily explained: firstly, photosynthesis in the water focuses on growth – without a gravity counterforce. Secondly, kelp forests grow in three dimensions, easily reaching 25 meters in height, in a high population concentration. Thirdly, the rich Arctic and Tropical currents provide a food density that is 700 times higher than if grown in air and soil on land.
Another benefit of seaweed cultivation is that, apart from oil, it also produces biogas and fertilizer. Next, and most interesting, and the opposite of palm oil: various seaweed species are pioneer species, which aid in restoring marine resources that have been overfished and have become over-loaded with plastics. Seaweed cultivation offers us an opportunity to regenerate marine forests and (re)discover its rich biodiversity.
The ZERI Network has embarked on numerous seaweed cultivation initiatives around the world, the first one in Zanzibar, Pemba and Mafia already in 1993. Our scientists, entrepreneurs and financiers aim to transform the present economic model and offer a future where we respond to the increased demand for food security – while ensuring restoration where damage has been caused through a lack of understanding of the negative impact of our actions in the past, which had unintended consequences.
From the moment we realize that harm has been done, we become responsible for the collateral damage caused, and we become responsible for reversing it, and taking steps to restore our forests, on land and in the sea. How can IUCN justify collateral damage caused by the stance they take on palm oil, and not take responsibility for the consequences, nor propose real solutions we desperately need?
We invited IUCN to provide information on the funding and suggested a dialogue on oil from seaweed. The management at different levels has remained mute to all our attempts to reach out and to jointly study the better options for biodiversity offered by the sea. This provides impetus to put further pressure on IUCN to come clean on this blanket approval of palm oil. After all, it is high time we stop putting orangutans in our tank!
The aim of this blog is to present a fresh look at realities around us. Whereas I do not pretend to present the truth nor a definite position, I do wish to push the reader to think beyond the obvious. After all, time has come to dramatically improve the plight of millions, and that requires more than the predictable. Sometimes it forces us into spheres of discomfort.