Quite often I hear on forums, on social media and in person that foods containing palm oil are not vegan friendly. I’m not sure if this is an experience specific to me, but it certainly is a big-bear of mine and it’s also a position which seems to have gone largely unchallenged in a formal way.
I want to present the case that Palm Oil should be considered a vegan food. I present a three-part defence of the traditional view in response to what I take to be the argument put against it, and finish with a fourth pragmatic reason why we ought to consider it to be vegan too. However, I want to be clear from the beginning that this does NOT mean I believe Palm Oil to be an ethical food source, or that we shouldn’t be listening to the Anti-Palm Oil lobby when they say we should boycott it. I only want to show that it should not be seen as an additional tenant of veganism.
Before we begin, in case people are unclear about the context of the debate, I will give a brief account of the history and claims of the anti-palm oil lobby. Palm Oil refers to oil from the imaginatively named “Oil Palm”. Palm Oil is grown in tropical regions of the world, particularly Indonesia for its uses in food and to a lesser extent biofuel. Anti-Palm Oil sentiment originally came from Indigenous Indonesian people who were turfed off their land to make way for Palm Oil plantations. However the majority of the issues that the anti-palm oil lobby (and specifically of interest those who believe Palm Oil =/=Vegan) focuses on today is the devastating environmental impacts of its cultivation. For example, the WWF estimates that 300 football fields of rainforest are destroyed every hour to make way for palm oil production. (Source: http://www.saynotopalmoil.com/Whats_the_issue.php). Most often though, the lobby relies on use of the animals effected by this deforestation to illustrate its claims. Currently 1/3 of all Indonesian mammal species are considered critically endangered due to habitat loss at the hand of palm oil cultivation; in particular campaigners have highlighted the plight of the Orangutan as the flagship for their efforts,as well as other large mammals: the Sumatran Rhinoceros, Sun Bear, Forest Elephants and Clouded Leopards. In 2010 Greenpeace ran a campaign to stop Nestlé buying Palm Oil for its products by producing a video showing a man eating the finger of an orangutan instead of a finger of KitKat chocolate bar.
These concerns are obviously of great weight, and are very difficult to ignore. It is also not surprising with a campaign so focussed on the animal victims of palm oil production Palm Oil is often framed as a concern that can be encompassed by veganism. Again, it is not the purpose, or my intentions in this essay to dispute the claims that the palm oil industry is horrendous, nor that we should dismiss with the arguments and solutions proposed by the anti-palm oil lobby. I simply want to dispute the way it is framed as an issue for vegans.
It is therefore important to have a starting definition for veganism to use throughout this essay; for we can only hope to decide whether or not palm oil should be considered vegan if we have knowledge of what it means. The definition which I will be using is :
“Veganism is abstaining from the use of animal products, or products which require the direct and coercive use of animal labour; for ethical reasons.”
I think this simple definition nicely captures what I take to be the specific “flavour” that veganism as a philosophy has separate from other “ethical consumerism” concerns. It foremost excludes both “vegetarian” and “plant-based diets”, which are obviously similar, but distinct concepts (vegetarians are ok with eating/using some animal products provided that the animal is not killed to provide them, and “plant-based” conforms to the rules of veganism in terms of diet, but does not necessarily encompass the other concerns that vegans would have about the use of animals in say sport, or clothing production). It also captures the specific characteristic of veganism that it is a choice inspired by an ethical world view which is inconsistent with the use of animals in food, clothing and to some extent recreational purposes.
With this definition in mind, we can now begin to examine whether or not the concept of veganism travels to include palm oil. By conceptual travelling, we mean that the definition we are using for veganism can encompass abstaining from eating/using palm oil, without the meaning changing in such a way which detracts from the distinctive characteristics of the original concept. Put simply; does veganism still look like what we think veganism is, if we include as one of its tenants abstaining from Palm Oil? Is it still the same concept? I think it is fairly convincing that it does not.
The first point is fairly simple, and I believe uncontroversial. Is Palm Oil an “animal product or product which requires the direct and coercive use of animal labour”? The simple answer to this is no, it is not; palm oil is a type of vegetable oil produced from the kernels of the African Oil Palm. It’s a plant product in the same way other cooking oils like sunflower or rapeseed are; and these products are uncontroversially considered to be vegan products. Therefore, Palm Oil is vegan.
However, this is of course a strawman and unfairly misrepresents the arguments of the Palm Oil=/=Vegan camp. In order to contest this position honestly, we should consider a stronger version of the argument. For those holding the opposing view, the destructive nature of Palm Oil production, in particular the impact it has on the lives of the animals whose lives are lost in the clearing of rainforest to make way for palm oil plantations is what renders it non-vegan. The debate now becomes: “Do the unintentional animal victims of a products production make that product non-vegan”?. Can our original definition of veganism stretch to also include the unintentional animal victims as well as those whose use is intention (as in food, clothing and sport)?
To this second point, it seems we again have to answer, no. This is a more controversial point by far; saying that animal suffering is only a vegan issue when it’s intentional is surely a point to raise contention, but bear with the argument here. My issue on this point is that Palm Oil is not by any stretch of the imagination the only product that causes unintentional animal victims, by a long way. Palm Oil is just a particularly well publicised case of this, more on that later. My main point is that all crops have by-kill. Animals are unintentionally killed in the harvesting and cultivation of (to my knowledge) nearly all crops – either during the harvesting process because of the use of mechanical harvesters, or through the use of pesticides on the crops, which either kill outright, or cause ecological disruption which results in the deaths of animals further down the line. Furthermore, the problem of unintentional animal victims applies even for products which are not related to food production. If you own something made in a factory (which you do), it’s near certain that somewhere along that production process, animal products were used (for example, animal fat as a component part of glycerol used as an industrial lubricant). The sorry fact of the matter is that modern life will, at some point, despite our best efforts, make us compliant in the unnecessary death and suffering of animals.
What this means is, to prevent the concept of veganism just being a fruitless and nihilistic effort, we have to accept that it should be limited in scope. Unless you are willing to say that almost no products at all are actually vegan it seems that you are going to have to concede this point. Furthermore, it seems right that the concern of ethical veganism ought to be the intentional and unnecessary killing and exploitation of animals in the food, clothing, medical, chemical and (to a certain extent) the sport and pet industries. This seems to best fit with the specific moral “flavour” that our thinking about veganism traditionally has. In the interests of veganism having any sort of useful normative claims, its focus needs to remain steadfastly on these issues, rather than fighting an impossible battle to oppose all possible human links to animal suffering.
Of course, there is now room for a third, further point of contention where the Palm Oil=/=Vegan camp can continue to dispute. This seems to be that Palm Oil is so destructive that it needs to be considered a special case, and this warrants it being included in a definition of veganism. Again, I think this argument fails.
First of all, this is at least in part an empirical claim – it makes reference to the amount of suffering caused, and it seems likely that the reason for thinking that Palm Oil causes more suffering is perhaps because its by-kill of unintentional animal victims is higher than other product production. There is reason to be suspicious here. Finding statistics on the amounts of animal deaths caused by varying types of crop production is very hard. I am actually unaware if at the time of writing (October 2016) if any cross-comparative review of this type has ever been done. However, if we are being generous to this claim, we might believe that because rainforest is some of the most densely inhabited form of environment, and pastureland is some of the lowest, we could be safe in the belief that Palm Oil production is some of the most harmful. However, this claim seems to me to fail for two reasons, which can be determined without necessarily requiring any empirical data on actual animal death amounts.
The first response is that it is of course true that Palm Oil is not the only crop whose cultivation is responsible for the destruction of rainforest. Vegans are often the first to point out how cattle raising and the associated cultivation of feedstock causes rainforest deforestation; although this is less often framed in terms of comparative unintentional animal victims. (although perhaps it ought to be http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10806-005-1805-x). However, all manner of crops and human activities are responsible for deforestation – and these are very rarely, if ever ,considered to be non-vegan because of it. Coffee and sugar production are major causes of rainforest deforestation, but so is logging for hardwood, used to make furniture, as well as seemingly innocuous activities such as road building. I have yet to see anyone make the case that vegans should, on account of their veganism, not use roads in forests because of their unintentional animal victims.
Secondly saying Palm Oil is especially destructive shifts to the Palm Oil=/=Vegan camp to explain at what point a product becomes so destructive (causes enough unintentional animal victims) to cause it to move into the realm of special consideration as a vegan issue. This is problematic for a number of reasons. If we are to place a threshold on products, where after a certain number of victims, they are no longer vegan we move into an indeterminacy problem. It seems impossible to determine at which point the threshold for special consideration ought to exist. For example, we might say that if a product, on average, produces over 1000 unintentional victims to produce X amount of product, then we consider it to now be a vegan concern. This seems to be a neat way to divide it, but it also seems to be an incredibly arbitrary way to determine our concerns. Given (as most vegans do), that all beings with the capacity to experience suffering are worth of a special kind of moral consideration, selecting an arbitrary amount over which a product can now be considered vegan seems to relegate their interests to the kind of utilitarian calculations which these rights based arguments seek to avoid. It causes the lives of 999 victims to be rendered inconsequential. On the other hand, merely seeking to avoid being compliant in products which intentionally and necessarily cause animal suffering seems to be a much simpler and more workable way of determining what products should and shouldn’t be considered vegan. As such, I think threshold amounts of harm for determining whether Palm Oil is a special case are a spurious argument.
My final point on this particular argument that Palm Oil is a special case is simply that I am suspicious of the actual motives for concern from the Palm Oil=/=Vegan camp. It seems to me at least that the primary reason why Palm Oil has been successful in elevating itself to the position of special concern is because of the kinds of animals that are affected by deforestation in Indonesia. We mentioned this earlier, but the animals which tend to pop up in anti-palm oil campaigns are the large mammals that everyone loves and finds particularly easy to love: leopards, rhinos, elephants and orangutans. To me, this smacks of speciesism- one of the foundational principles that veganism seeks to oppose. Speciesism, as described by Peter Singer, is a belief, akin to sexism or racism that claims that some species of animals (including humans) are more morally valuable than others – without reference to any other morally valuable characteristics. The same point is often made by vegan activists to represent the disconnect people have from the animals which they love as their pets, and those which they put on their dinner plates. It’s hard to prove, but I suspect that the reason why Palm Oil draws such ire from the vegan community, when by-kill from other agriculture fails to provoke the same rage is because of the cuteness and icon status of the animals involved. The privileging the suffering of these animals because of characteristics they have which are not morally relevant (how cute they are for instance) is diametrically opposed to the underlying beliefs of veganism.
Finally, as a possible fourth point and conclusion; I worry that by subsuming issues which are undoubtable issues that “ethical consumers” should worry about like Palm Oil, into the concerns of veganism creates separate problems. Veganism is a distinct concept, which cannot and should not just be a stand in term for ethical consumerism. In the first case, as I hoped to show earlier, it loses the distinct flavour of veganism when the concept becomes associated with issues beyond the intentional suffering of animals used for food, clothing, testing and entertainment. I also suspect that it alienates support for the cause by adding additional concerns and things for people to be worried about; it adds to the myth that veganism is hard, and turns people off when they realise that they also have to abstain from an additional subset of other products which are also deemed immoral. I think a more useful understanding of what veganism entails should limit its focus firmly on the key elements of human caused animal suffering.