Green peace got it wrong with palm kernel protests

In September 2009 Green peace went on the protest against the importation of palm kernel for dairy feed. I'm a GP supporter, but I think they got this one wrong, read on to understand why

What is Palm Kernel?

Palm oil trees are mainly grown in the tropics of Asia. There are 2 types of oil extracted from the tree, palm oil, and palm kernel oil. Palm kernel is the leftovers once the kernel oil has been pressed out. There is increasing use of it in the international commercial food industry, and Malaysia and NZ use the palm kernel substantially as a cattle feed.

The Greenpeace Argument

The purchase of palm kernel from Malaysia and Indonesia contributes to the destruction of the worlds rain forests. That although palm oil is the primary cause of this destruction, the amount of palm kernel imported creates a market for that product.

The Fonterra Argument

That palm kernel is a waste product. They state that palm oil is the real cause of deforestation, and that palm kernel will only have a market in NZ so long as it is cheap.

My Argument

I had heard the Greenpeace argument in the media, and then I asked a farmer why they were using it. I think we need to consider the motivations and understanding of the people involved, and then take a closer look at the facts.

The farmer basically indicated 3 reasons for using it

  • It was dirt cheap to buy it, and if it wasn't they wouldn't buy it.
  • The cows love it, tastes like chocolate
  • Research says its good for the cows too

The last 2 arguments might be a strong suggestion that there is a strong market for the product, but the most important part here is the price. The cost worked out about 20c per kilogramme. That's delivered all the way from Asia, transported around the country and landed on the farmers paddock. That is the price of a waste product.

Farmers in NZ constantly feed their animals all sorts of strange foods. It also happens that NZ's kiwifruit industry produces far too much fruit each year, and this fruit also ends up as cattle feed. The kiwifruit board sell as much fruit as they can to the international market, for human consumption, and if there is any left over, then it is waste. They either dump it, or attempt some price recovery, or just attempt to avoid waste and dumping fees. Farmers won't necessarily feed anything to their cattle, but if it is fit for their consumption, and it is price efficient to do so, then they may choose to.

The price of cattle feed is very important. Cows produce milk for the dairy industry. The price of milk on the shelf we all know, back track from their to the farmer, and everyone along the chain will be taking a profit, the supermarket, the factory, etc. The farmer also needs to make a profit, with the primary costs being their land and labour. Any feed additional to the grass that grows freely in the paddock, needs to be weighed up as to how much profit it is going to deliver the farmer. The cost of grass is basically calculated by the cost of the land (maybe sprays and additives). It's very hard for other agricultural products, grown in other countries, to be landed in NZ, at a price that will be acceptable for the farmer to make a profit.

Cattle feed nearly always insinuates that the product is a waste product. Consider all the of the agricultural activities in the world, that once the required seed, grain, wheat etc is removed from a plant, that there is still biomass. The demand for the key elements of the plant drive the industry, but that industry is still left with some biomass to dispose off. This is where cattle feed comes from. Cattle feed is nearly always waste.

So what is Greenpeace's motivation. Their motivation is well meaning, they want to stop the destruction of the rain forests. But they have not taken the time to research this thoroughly, they have made a quick connection between the 2, and got this wrong.

Consider this similar argument, if you build an Eco house out of car tyres then are you contributing to the motor industry? You could not have built the house if the tyres had not been produced. If you build a house out of old tyres, are you then creating a demand for those tyres to be produced even if the motor industry did not exist.

Or gelatin (jelly), it's made from cow hooves. By eating jelly are we creating driving the meat industry? Or is this just a ready use that can be made out of the millions of cow carcases that is a waste product of the meat industry.

Once you understand that the product you are using is a waste product, and that you only use it because it's a waste product, then it becomes acceptable.

The price difference between palm oil and the palm kernel is huge. The price is the biggest indicator of waste. If the by product had huge demand, then the price would increase.

I would hope as a member of Greenpeace that they would act in ways that would educate farmers to do the right thing on all topics. In this case farmers are making use of a waste product. Perhaps it is even borderline right/wrong. But we want farmers to stay on side with Greenpeace. To listen to them. The environment will be better off as a whole, if more farmers see Greenpeace as a shining light. But if Greenpeace fights a fight that isn't worth fighting, then they do themselves some harm.

On a side note, Palm oil trees are a renewal product. On most points, it's hard to find a problem with palm oil trees at all. But the problem everyone agrees on is they way the plantations are being managed, and the destruction of the rain forests in order to create new plantations. But use of the trees themselves is not bad, it's just a plant. Consider the equivalents of soy and other sources of oils and fats. If Palm trees weren't used, what plant would take their place? Where would they be grown, and under what conditions?. The protests have caused the media to make any association with any palm product synonymous with evil, and they have created tension between Greenpeace and the farmers. Nothing good has come from it. Is it actually Palm products we don't like, or is it the way they are grown? If it is the way they are grown, then we should focus on how we can make a stand. One approach might be to boycott the products that really drive the palm oil industry. The products that consume the oil itself.


Posted: Friday 25 September 2009


  • The places where palm oil trees were planted in the 1960s and 1970s were already cleared. The deforestation is actually down to human migration. So it is incorrect to say buying palm oil contributes anything extra to deforestation.
    Posted: 2011-08-11 08:38   by Edward L

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