Conservation Medicine is supporting a drive towards more sustainable palm oil production as opposed to a boycott of the crop.

Together with a growing number of conservation organisations, we believe a boycott is not only unachievable but could prove counter-productive. It would increase deforestation and remove the incentive for sustainable production.

Instead, we should strive to drive the palm oil industry towards a sustainable long-term future by breaking the link between agricultural development and the degradation of natural ecosystems.

Boycotting leads to more deforestation

Images of forest cleared for miles of plantation, and orangutans pushed to the brink of survival, have inspired campaigns to say no to palm oil. But buying from sustainable palm oil brands is a better option for the environment, wildlife and farmers.

Conservation Medicine director Tom Hughes says: “A boycott is unrealistic; we all use palm oil every day in our food and cosmetics, it provides livelihoods for millions of people, and is the most productive oil crop in the world.

“If we ban it the result will be more deforestation and habitat fragmentation as farmers clear land for new crops, and it could drive the price down reducing the incentive for sustainably produced oil palm.”

Removing the market for palm oil could encourage farmers to produce alternative crops that would require up to nine times as much land to produce the same yield.

Sustainable Palm Oil

If palm oil is farmed sustainably, it could help break the link between agricultural development and the degradation of natural ecosystems.

“If we ban it the result will be more deforestation and habitat fragmentation as farmers clear land for new crops, and it could drive the price down reducing the incentive for sustainably produced oil palm.”

Tom Hughes, Conservation Medicine Director

Mitigating the risks of zoonotic diseases with sustainable practices

Deforestation for agricultural expansion including palm oil plantations has already had a devastating impact on wildlife habitats and precious ecosystems. It is imperative that further land clearance is curbed.

As well as putting species at risk of extinction through habitat loss, land-use change increases the risk of emerging diseases, as wildlife and human contact and conflict increases – as shown in the key findings and recommendations of our IDEEAL project and PREDICT project.

When previously pristine areas are opened up for logging, transport links improve bringing more people to these remote areas, leading to more hunting, more unregulated agricultural expansion for crops like oil palm that further fragment the forest, and it is easier for wildlife to be transported back to urban markets along with the pathogens they carry (learn more here). That is why supporting sustainable agricultural expansion including palm oil production is so crucial.

Hughes says: “We need to stop clearing land in these areas, work on improving productivity at existing plantations and when more land is needed use degraded or already cleared land. Improving land-use management is a vital step in reducing the risk of disease emergence and minimizing the potential economic and public health impacts.”

To learn more about our understanding of the subject, please read the full report from our IDEEAL project here.

You can also watch this short video that explains the simple reasons why buying products with sustainable oil palm will reduce deforestation:

Below is the full statement on sustainable palm oil along with the list of supporting organisations.

Statement in support of Sustainable Palm Oil

The conservation organisations listed below are committed to driving the palm oil industry in the right direction, and support a move to sustainable palm oil and not a blanket boycott.

Palm oil produced according to the standards set by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) or Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), as of 2018, is required to be deforestation-free. Manufacturers, retailers and traders all over the world have made bold commitments to removing deforestation from their supply chains – some are making swifter progress than others towards meeting these commitments.  There are no quick fixes, but the following actions will go a long way to cleaning up the palm oil industry:

  • Palm oil producers must stop converting forests, peatlands and other sensitive natural habitats to oil palm plantations. Instead, they should increase yields on existing plantations, and any expansion should be restricted to degraded land that is not classified as High Conservation Value or High Carbon Stock. They also need to be transparent about their production methods and avoid labour, land and human rights violations.
  • Companies manufacturing or selling products made with palm oil and its derivatives need to investigate their suppliers and only source palm oil from responsible growers, ensuring their supply chain is traceable, and communicating honestly with their customers about their progress on their journey to using solely sustainable palm oil.
  • We expect the RSPO and its members to adhere to the criteria and take action when there is evidence of non-compliance.
  • Consumers can support retailers and manufacturers which are committed to removing deforestation from their products, join social media campaigns to drive the industry in the right direction, and support conservation organisations who are working to break the link between palm oil and deforestation.

There is no denying that the rapid expansion of the palm oil industry over the last 30 years has had a catastrophic environmental and social impact across Southeast Asia, South America and Africa.  Consumers all over the world have been horrified to learn about the destructive practices rife within the industry, and the orangutan has become an emblem for the clash between development and conservation.

Boycotting palm oil is a legitimate expression of consumers’ social and environmental concerns, but the question we urge individuals and businesses to ask themselves is:

Will this action help wildlife, forests and communities?

The problem with a blanket boycott is that it punishes indiscriminately. It removes the market for palm oil from those companies which are making genuine efforts and progress towards sustainability, as well as those which aren’t. And if we remove the market for sustainable palm oil, we also remove the incentive for companies to abide by the better management practices which reduce the footprint of the industry – in terms of impacts on wildlife, forests, climate and human rights.

A blanket boycott of palm oil could lead to the following unintentional consequences:

  • More deforestation, not less

If the international market for palm oil disappears, palm oil companies and smallholder farmers alike could switch to producing an alternative crop. Oil palms are the most productive oil crop in the world, producing around 35% of global vegetable oil supplies on less than 10% of the total land under oil crops [1]. A switch to another type of edible vegetable oil (such as soybean oil) would require up to nine times as much land to produce the same yield. This will increase natural habitat loss, species loss and other impacts.

  • Increasing demand

A blanket boycott of palm oil could drive the price of palm oil down. This could increase demand, especially in markets which have less interest in sustainability. This reduces the incentive to produce environmentally sustainable palm oil.

All agriculture has an impact: bananas, beef, cane sugar, chocolate, coconuts, coffee, pineapples, soybeans, tea and vanilla are all produced in previously forested tropical areas[2].

With over 4.5 million people in Indonesia alone relying on the palm oil industry as their primary source of income, palm oil is here to stay. What we need to do is ensure that it is cultivated in the least damaging way possible. Oil palms do not need to be grown at the expense of forests and other sensitive natural habitats. Instead we need to break the link between development and the degradation of natural ecosystems.

The conservation organisations committed to driving the palm oil industry in the right direction, and support a move to sustainable palm oil and not a blanket boycott are:

Sumatran Orangutan Society
Orangutan Land Trust
Chester Zoo
Conservation International
World Land Trust
Jane Goodall Institute Australia
Borneo Futures
Yayasan Orangutan Sumatera Lestari
Global Canopy
Hutan KOCP
Borneo Nature Foundation
Earthworm Foundation
Zoological Society of London
Orangutan Outreach
Global Environment Centre
Orangutan Veterinary Aid
Orangutan Conservancy
Danau Girang Field Centre
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
Borneo Wildlife Preservation
Save Orangutans Now
Twycross Zoo
Save the Rhino International
WildCats Conservation Alliance
Borneo Rhino Alliance
Save the Orangutan
Lincoln Park Zoo
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
San Diego Zoo Global
Conservation Medicine
Houston Zoo
Copenhagen Zoo
The Living Rainforest
Beauval Nature
Naples Zoo
Zoos Victoria
Association of Zoos and Aquariums
Woodland Park Zoo
British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums
Wild Planet Trust
Wildlife Reserves Singapore
Dartmoor Zoological Society
Taronga Conservation Society Australia
Wellington Zoo
Auckland Zoo
National Marine Aquarium
The Deep
Bristol Zoological Society
National Wildlife Federation
Forever Sabah
Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP)
Marwell Wildlife
Yorkshire Wildlife Park
Crocodiles of the World
Indianapolis Zoo
Toronto Zoo
Paradise Wildlife Park/Zoological Society of Hertfordshire
The Big Cat Sanctuary
Orana Wildlife Park
Detroit Zoological Society
Lubee Bat Conservancy
Perth Zoo
Oregon Zoo
Wildlife Conservation Network
Jenkinson’s Aquarium
Oklahoma City Zoo
Zoos South Australia
Columbus Zoo
Orangutan Republik Foundation
Seratu Aatai
Borneo Child Aid
PM Haze
Tulsa Zoo
Kansas City Zoo
Little Rock Zoo
Blank Park Zoo
Staten Island Zoo
Wild Welfare
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium
Fondation Ensemble
Saint Louis Zoo
Ocean Conservation Trust
Malaysian Primatological Society
Aidenvironment Asia
Chicago Zoological Society / Brookfield Zoo
Alameda Wildlife Conservation Park
Amici della Terra Onlus
International Elephant Foundation
Great Plains Zoo
Zoo Knoxville
Santa Barbara Zoo
Verify Humanity
Audubon Nature Institute
Zoo New England

[1] IUCN: Palm Oil and Biodiversity (

[2] Meijaard E and Sheil D (2019) The Moral Minefield of Ethical Oil Palm and Sustainable Development. Front. For. Glob. Change 2:22