Take quiz about palm oil Take quiz



In a world dominated by bleak headlines about environmental degradation and looming crises, Dr Hannah Ritchie’s latest work, “Not the End of the World,” emerges as a beacon of positivity.

As a distinguished data scientist and lead researcher at the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data , Ritchie offers a refreshing perspective that goes beyond the doom and gloom narratives, instead focusing on the potential for positive change and sustainable solutions to global challenges.

Ritchie discusses how, for several years she fell for the anti-palm propaganda and supported boycotts and bans on environmental grounds. However, once she started researching deforestation for Our World in Data, using reliable information rather than emotion and hyperbole, she read countless scientific papers and policy documents thinking that these would contain a clear message – that palm oil was the leading driver of deforestation and that it needed to be stopped. She expected that the experts would push for a boycott.

This was not the case. The advice was that boycotting palm oil was a terrible idea that would make tropical deforestation worse not better.
Ritchie acknowledged that, like so many people, she had been convinced by simplistic, emotional messages where, in reality, palm oil, deforestation and food are complicated problems.

At the heart of Ritchie’s palm oil narrative lies a detailed analysis of the industry and its complex relationship with deforestation and environmental sustainability. For years, the palm oil sector has been a lightning rod for criticism, often vilified as a primary driver of deforestation and habitat loss. However, Ritchie’s research challenges these entrenched perceptions, revealing a more nuanced reality that defies simplistic portrayals.

Drawing on her expertise and access to robust data sets, Ritchie delves into the intricate dynamics of palm oil production, debunking common myths and misconceptions along the way. One of the central tenets of her argument is the notion of “land sparing” because palm oil emerges as a highly efficient and productive crop compared to alternative oil sources like soybean, sunflower, and olive oil. This efficiency is critical in a world grappling with competing demands for agricultural land and dwindling natural habitats. By maximizing yields per hectare, palm oil cultivation minimizes the need for extensive land conversion, thus mitigating its environmental footprint.

Cutting out palm oil will lead to it being replaced it with other oils and the alternatives are no better. One hectare of palm currently gives us 2.8 tonnes of oil in return; olives give us 0.3 tonnes, coconuts give us 0.26 tonnes and groundnuts, just 0.18 tonnes. If companies boycotted palm oil to replace it with alternatives, they would need 5 to 10 times as much land devoted to oil crops – where would this land come from?

Ritchie came up with a powerful thought experiment: we currently use 322 million hectares (an area the size of India) to grow oil crops. If we were to get all of it from palm oil we’d need just 77 million hectares – four times less, freeing up a lot of land for reforestation. If we got it all from soybean oil, we’d need more land: (490 million hectares) and from olive oil we’d need 660 million hectares (two Indias).
Ritchie’s analysis also highlights the shifting landscape of deforestation, challenging the perception that palm oil is the sole culprit behind forest loss. While it’s undeniable that palm oil production has historically been associated with deforestation in regions such as Indonesia and Malaysia, Ritchie points to a marked decline in its contribution in recent years. Instead, she identifies beef production as the primary driver of global deforestation, particularly in regions like South America, where vast swathes of pristine forests are cleared to make way for cattle ranching.

She confronts the narrative surrounding the health impacts of palm oil and seed oils more broadly. In an era marked by heightened concerns about diet-related diseases and the role of fats and oils in promoting or exacerbating health outcomes, she sifts through the scientific evidence to separate fact from fiction. Contrary to popular beliefs linking seed oils to various health issues, Ritchie reveals that omega-6 fatty acids found in these oils may actually confer beneficial effects on heart health and overall mortality rates. This nuanced perspective challenges the prevailing narrative that demonizes seed oils without considering the broader scientific consensus.

In light of these findings, Ritchie advocates for a balanced approach to addressing the environmental and health concerns associated with palm oil. Rather than resorting to blanket boycotts or bans, she emphasizes the importance of supporting sustainably sourced palm oil that adheres to rigorous certification standards. This not only incentivizes responsible practices within the industry but also empowers consumers to make informed choices that prioritize both environmental sustainability and personal health.

Looking ahead, Ritchie’s work serves as a clarion call for collective action and informed decision-making in charting a path towards a more sustainable future. It underscores the need for collaboration between governments, NGOs, producers, and consumers to foster transparency, accountability, and innovation within the palm oil industry. By embracing sustainable practices and addressing the underlying drivers of deforestation, we can lay the groundwork for a future where environmental stewardship and economic prosperity are mutually reinforcing.

In conclusion, “Not the End of the World,” offers a compelling narrative that challenges prevailing narratives surrounding palm oil and its impact on the environment and human health. Through rigorous research and data-driven analysis, Hannah Ritchie provides a nuanced understanding of the complexities involved, highlighting the potential for positive change through sustainable practices and informed decision-making. It’s a rallying cry for all stakeholders to come together in forging a future where environmental responsibility and economic prosperity go hand in hand, ensuring a legacy of sustainability for generations to come.