The problem with palm oil...
What is palm oil?
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of the ‘oil palm’ tree. The trees are originally from Africa, but were brought to south-east Asia around 100 years ago. Indonesia and Malaysia make up over 85% of global supply, but there are 42 other countries that produce palm oil.
What is palm oil used for?
The short answer is; a lot. Palm oil is used in everything from food production to cosmetics. For many, the term ‘palm oil’ means oil produced from the oil palm tree. However, there are in fact two main separate products deriving from two different parts of the fruit; palm oil and palm kernel oil.
Palm oil is made from the flesh of the palm fruit, while ‘palm kernel oil’ is made from the kernels of the fruit. Palm oil is the healthier of the two and is used for edible purposes, as an additive to food e.g. it is added to ice cream to raise the melting temperature.
Palm kernel oil, on the other hand, is used for non-edible purposes e.g. for making soaps, shampoos, cosmetics; it is added to soaps etc. as a lathering/foaming agent. Based on this; how many times do you think you have used/consumed products containing palm oil or its derivatives today? Bread, biscuits, chocolate, crisps, instant noodles, lipstick, makeup, non-dairy substitutes, shampoo, soaps and toothpaste are all examples of every-day items likely to contain palm oil.
Why is this a problem?
In order to make way for the plantations, rainforest is cleared, to the extent that palm oil is said to have been responsible for about 8% of the world’s deforestation between 1990 and 2008. Most of this deforestation is occurring in places like Indonesia and Malaysia, where animals like the Orangutan, Sumatran Rhino, Asian Elephants and Sumatran Tiger are affected. In fact, in the last 25 years, Sumatran Tiger numbers have decreased by over 50%.
The damage to biodiversity is not the only problem. The production of palm oil is a major contributor to climate change. By removing primary rainforest, we are removing natural carbon sinks from the environment. This is further complicated by the fact that a lot of the land that the forests occupy is peatland. When the forest is cleared this peat is burned, releasing yet more carbon that had been locked away.
Outside of habitat loss, loss of biodiversity, the release of greenhouse gases and extinction of keystone species, there are other ethical problems with large palm oil plantations. In a report published on 30 November 2016, Amnesty International investigated plantations run by the world’s biggest palm oil grower, Singapore-based, Wilmar.
The report found that the world’s most popular food and household companies are selling food, cosmetics and every other day staples containing palm oil that are produced in shocking conditions – with children as young as eight working in hazardous environments. ADM, Colgate-Palmolive, Kellogg’s, Nestle, Procter & Gamble and Unilever are all major companies mentioned as receiving palm oil from Wilmar. Most of these companies try to assure their customers that the palm oil they use comes from ‘sustainable’ sources.
What is sustainable palm oil?
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was set up in 2004, and comprises producers, growers, traders and Non-Governmental Organisations with the idea of setting a standard and certification system for the production of palm oil. It sets out principles to adhere to, including things such as; agreement to clear no virgin rainforest and fair treatment of workers. So how much of the palm oil used by companies mentioned above, and consumed by us, is sourced from ‘sustainable’ plantations? The sustainable certification system can be problematic and there have been accusations of corruption etc. Unfortunately, as it stands with the volumes of palm oil produced and consumed it is impossible to tell whether some, all or none of it comes from a ‘sustainable’ source.
What can we do?
The answer really depends on; how much do we want to do? If we as consumers are compelled to do something, then we can. Realistically, it would be very hard to stop consuming palm oil altogether. When it comes to household items and cosmetics, the list of different names for palm oil and its derivatives is huge – over 200 according to Orangutan Alliance.
As human beings, it is unlikely that we are ever going to stop needing to produce and use vegetable oils, and the fact is that palm oil is more productive than the other vegetable alternatives. On a per hectare basis, oil palm is 6-10 times more efficient at producing oil than alternatives. In other words, if we were to boycott palm oil and only start using the alternatives, we would need to use 6-10 times the amount of area for the production of oil currently given over to palm oil production.
Our palm oil solution is likely to lie in pressuring big companies into reforming the current industry and enforcing a standard for production that employees, and we as consumers are happy with.
If you’re interested in sustainability, take a look at our blog ‘4 steps to sustainability’ to find out ways you can live more sustainably: