Adventurous travel, unforgettable encounters, anecdotes and impressions from foreign countries: In the Hörweite podcast series, SPIEGEL ONLINE reporters talk about their reporting trips around the globe (in German). In this edition, politics editor Vanessa Steinmetz talks about her journey to the palm oil plantations of Thailand. Here, you can read an abridged, English-language version of the interview .
SPIEGEL ONLINE: When you read the labels on food packaging in supermarkets, you'll find palm oil listed as an ingredient in many food products. But the vegetable oil has a bad reputation among German consumers. It is associated with deforested rainforests and poor working conditions. Vanessa, do I really have to feel guilty as a consumer when I buy products containing palm oil?
Vanessa Steinmetz: The problems you described certainly do exist. There is large-scale deforestation in Indonesia, where the slash-and-burn method is common and, according to human rights organizations, workers are exploited.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: And yet palm oil is found in many food products. Why?
Vanessa Steinmetz: I was really astonished to see where it pops up. It's relatively clear when it comes to food, because you can read it on the label. Since 2014, manufacturers have been required to list on the label which vegetable oils are used in a product sold in the European Union. However, consumers have no idea about all the other products that include palm oil, such as paints, varnishes, biodiesel, feed for farm animals and children's suppositories. Palm oil is also found in many shampoos and cosmetics. It is suitable for many things because it has a unique texture. It is spreadable at room temperature and also has very little taste of its own.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: There are also products with various seals. For example, some products include statements like: "Fair organic palm oil out of respect for humans, animals and nature." Sounds great, doesn't it?
Vanessa Steinmetz: Yes, it does sound great. But the whole thing is incredibly complicated. These seals of approval are a good way to show consumers that things can be done differently. But the rules behind them are inconsistent, with some being strict and others less so. I think many consumers are completely unaware of this. The EU alone has recognized more than 19 different seals of approval and sustainability labels. But I do believe that a product with certification is definitely the better choice in the supermarket - with some caveats.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Where does most palm oil come from?
Vanessa Steinmetz: From Indonesia, followed by Malaysia and then Thailand. Indonesia and Malaysia alone account for over 90 percent, while Thailand is responsible for a few percentage points of global production.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But you went to Thailand for your report. Why not one of the other two countries?
Vanessa Steinmetz: Our aim was to present the topic in all its complexity in a slightly different way than we had read and heard about before. There are many reports about palm oil in Indonesia, about exploitation, about deforestation -- and they're entirely justified. I'm not trying to trivialize that. But we wanted to show that things are a little different in Thailand. The conditions are simply different there. Instead of cutting down forests, for example, the farmers use fields where rubber was previously grown to cultivate oil palms. The profile of those who produce palm oil is also different. In Indonesia, large corporations account for most of the cultivation, while in Thailand about 80 percent of the plantations are owned by small farmers.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But even these small farmers in Thailand could also simply clear virgin rainforest. So, why aren't they doing this?
Vanessa Steinmetz: They're not allowed to. The fact that it is prohibited does not mean that it never happens. There are always exceptions to the rule. We heard several times that farmers sometimes enlarge the edges of their fields a bit and "eat" a little bit into the rainforest. In fact, however, almost 100 percent of palm oil plantations now operate within the law. The only thing that's still permitted is switching from one plant to another in a field.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You spoke of "we." Who were you traveling with in Thailand?
Vanessa Steinmetz: I was there with my dear colleague Karl Vandenhole, who lives near Krabi. He also has a small plantation of his own and knows the other farmers in the village. This gave us access that would otherwise have been impossible. He also took the photos and videos.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: One of the things you did was to accompany a man named Pot, who drives from one plantation to the next with his fellow workers, harvesting the fruits of the oil palms. Your report also describes how this is done. But you also visited Pot at his home. What's the life of a Thai palm oil cutter like?
Vanessa Steinmetz: Pot lives in a small hut with a corrugated metal roof. There are two rooms that are relatively crowded with various belongings. The dogs are outside, and his little grandson runs around inside, where he practically has his own little playground in front of the TV.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In other words, even though the palm oil business is quite profitable, he isn't exactly well off.
Vanessa Steinmetz: First of all, the question is how you define profitable. Pot told us that he earns about 20 euros a day. You don't get rich on that. It's not a lot of money, but it's still more than people used to make working on the rubber plantations.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are environmental organizations that call for a boycott of palm oil destroying Pot's livelihood?
Vanessa Steinmetz: I wouldn't make such a direct connection. First of all, not that many environmental groups are actually calling for a complete boycott. At least I haven't found or spoken to many people who would put it that clearly. They too are realistic about that fact that you can't just eliminate palm oil. Something has to replace it. And as this replacement leads to the need to create even more land for soybeans -- or whatever -- it creates a dilemma. The real question is under what conditions palm oil should be cultivated. There are many opinions on this, just as there are many different certificates.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: During your research trip, you met Sutonya Thongrak, an agricultural economist who has been working with the oil palm farmers in Thailand for quite some time. She's trying to teach them how to farm in the most productive but also sustainable ways. And she's also developing a new seal, right?
Vanessa Steinmetz: Yes, exactly. She is in the process of developing a seal called TSPO. It's based on the so-called RSPO (Responsible Sourcing of Palm Oil) seal, which is currently one of the most widespread but also the most controversial seals. TSPO would then be the version for Thailand. The problem with RSPO, however, is that it has relatively vague principles, such as "commitment to transparency, environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources." That sounds good, but what exactly does that mean? The TSPO seal, which is supposed to follow these criteria, has been developed especially with small farmers in mind. With RSPO, the problem for small farmers is that they have to form groups if they want to qualify. This is relatively difficult and acts as a deterrent. The TSPO is about keeping the hurdle relatively low, but this also means that the criteria are likely to be weaker. Thongrak told us that this is only the beginning, in order to get as many on board as possible, and that the criteria will be modified later. Whether this actually happens remains to be seen.
A worker handles palm oil seeds.Foto: ADEK BERRY / AFP
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So it will be a while before we see the TSPO seal on supermarket shelves in Europe?
Vanessa Steinmetz: Yes, it will take some time. And as I said, cultivation in Thailand really only accounts for a small percentage. But I have the impression that the overall awareness of sustainability is growing. It isn't necessarily the case that companies suddenly care so much about the environment, but it's also because of growing pressure from markets. However, the pressure from Asian countries, to which a large part of the oil is exported, is still relatively mild. And so it's also possible that if demand in Europe declines, producers and dealers will simply shift gears and ship everything to China instead.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you have any advice for readers on how to be better consumers when it comes to palm oil?
Vanessa Steinmetz: It makes sense to familiarize yourself with one or the other seal and figure out whether you personally feel the conditions are justifiable. For example, do I want to buy RSPO-certified products or would I prefer a label that has much tougher criteria? It's also a good thing to consume oil more consciously because at some point the cultivation areas become exhausted and new ones will have to be developed, so that this entire cycle continues. If you want to consume less palm oil, you can buy fewer processed products, for example. That's because palm oil is often found in these products, even in some frozen pizzas. And I think it's always a good idea to buy less processed food and cook more yourself, so that you really know what ingredients are in your food.