Public debate on oil palm under scrutiny in new article

Confronting communication barriers for more sustainable production
A Brazilian oil palm smallholder, Seu Manoel, harvests fruit in his plantation. Photo by Miguel Pinheiro/CIFOR-ICRAF

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Is palm oil a ‘demon’, or is it being unfairly demonized? To shed light on this debate, a team of researchers investigated ‘pro’ and ‘contra’ narratives on oil palm production. Their recent review article, Oil palm production, instrumental and relational values: the public relations battle for hearts, heads, and hands along the value chain, identifies barriers to effective communication and states the need to build a better dialogue toward sustainable oil palm production.

The oil palm sustainability debate may well be the most polarized issue in tropical land use. On one hand, critics question its negative impacts on tropical rainforests, people, and biodiversity. On the other, champions tout its high potential for improving farmer incomes and creating jobs. While the topic has been hotly debated over the past decade, “communication between the ‘pro’ and the ‘contra’ camps is limited, as the underlying values may limit the interest in listening to other perspectives,” said the co-authors.

“This muddied debate urges clearer distinctions between the crop itself and how it is produced to achieve sustainable oil palm systems,” said Andrew Miccolis, one of the authors of the review and the national coordinator of the Centre for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) in Brazil.

“The strong association of a crop with evil, as happened to oil palm in parts of the world, and to soybeans in others, may primarily be due to mislabeling. It is not the plant as such, but the way it has so far been produced that should be the focus of attention, as it can open avenues for a more socially and ecologically desirable use of the biological potential of the species in an appropriate environment.”

The research group examined elements of the debate using Values of Nature (VoN) frameworks, which distinguish three specific types of VoN – ‘relational’ (harmony-oriented), ‘intrinsic’ (rights-oriented), and ‘instrumental’ (goal-oriented).

The researchers made connections between these types of VoN and the five key ‘axes of morality’ as defined by Moral Foundation Theory (MFT) – Care/harm, Fairness/inequity, Authority/subversion, Libertarianism/regulation, Loyalty/betrayal, and Sanctity/impunity – and considered how these values and morals inform people’s views on oil palm.

They cite, among many other examples, a striking case of how MFT and VoN intermingle in decision making in the arena of EU policies on oil palm imports. They explain how policymakers the EU in 2018 responded to — and acted decisively on — negative views of oil palm as a major driver of deforestation, which were informed by a strong sense of the intrinsic value of tropical rainforests. The EU voted to phase out palm oil from its renewable energy program (evidencing instrumental value on use of natural resources) by 2021 and capping its use to 2017 consumption levels.

By splitting the oil palm debate into the various axes of morality, the authors found that within each axis, it may be possible to find common ground once both the ‘pro’ and ‘contra’ arguments are acknowledged – or refuted based on further empirical studies or joint assessment.

“However, little progress can be expected if a ‘biased’ or non-neutral [person] refers to arguments in one column (e.g. economic benefits) and the other side to arguments in another column (e.g. social unfairness and environmental harm),” they said. “Trade-offs between different axes of morality are unavoidable in the practice of decision-making, and reflect political positions, with compromises requiring levels of trust that unfortunately are lacking in the current political climate. Progress in finding common or middle ground requires progress on all axes of morality.”

The authors concluded that classifying these different perspectives of reality in alignment with different aspects of morality “allows new knowledge and understanding to emerge, moving toward more effective negotiations for developing inclusive oil palm value chains that further economic development, small-scale producers’ livelihoods, and environmental health.”

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