The talk of palm oil has dominated headlines and social media for years now. It seems that by now we should all know about the destruction and have switched to an alternative right? Unfortunately, palm oil is still very much a part of most of our daily lives – here’s what you still need to know.
Where is it from?
It’s come to my attention recently that many people don’t yet know the basics about this highly valued commodity which dominates our supermarket shelves. So, let us start there.
Palm oil is derived from the fruit of the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) a native to West Africa. It flourishes in the humid tropics and can also be found in Central and East Africa as well as Madagascar, but in more isolated communities where rainfall is optimum.
The industrial revolution initially created a demand for palm oil causing West African Farmers to supply export trade, as well as producing palm oil for their own food needs. It is likely, however, that palm oil was a part of food supply for indigenous populations long before recorded history.
Worldwide demand continued to grow and in the 1900s palm oil plantations were established by Europeans in Central Africa and South-East Asia. For decades production grew steadily, until 1995 when palm oils production started to grow rapidly. This caused annual production to quadruple from 15.2m tonnes to 62.6m tonnes between 1995 and 2015! Current calculates expect that production will quadruple again by 2050, that’s an estimated 240m tonne produced each year! 44 countries produce palm oil, but Indonesia and Malaysia have dominated world production and supply for years. These two countries alone provide 85% of palm oil production.
By now we all know that palm oil production is far from problem-free. Fires clear the forests to create yet more land for plantations, land which is the only home to Sumatran tigers, Sumatran rhinos and Orangutans, (to name just a few) – quickly driving them toward extinction. There are now estimated to be fewer than 100 Sumatran Rhinos left in the wild, and the endangered orangutan continues to decline in numbers, with little hope of populations surviving.
Unfortunately, species are often killed directly by palm oil workers protecting their valuable crops. As the pockets of habitat get smaller and smaller, inevitably animals will find themselves having to wander through plantations in search of food. Where they are met with pest control workers employed by Palm oil corporations to shoot animals found ‘trespassing’, to prevent the destruction of crops. For these workers, it is common to come across mother orangutans with a young baby. This often results in the mother being shot and the baby being pulled away from its mother to be sold into the pet trade, selling a young orangutan on the illegal market is a hefty payday for a poor worker trying to feed his own family.
My time in Borneo at the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) saw no end of injured animals and young orphans rescued from the pet trade after their mother was killed at a plantation. This experience truly showed how the palm oil industry is responsible for so much suffering faced by orangutans and the other wildlife in the forest.
But it’s not just the fauna and flora they contain which are in danger. These forests are some of the world’s most spectacular and perform some of the most important services to human wellbeing. Rainforests are a critical component in our planets natural balance, they regulate our climate, capture our carbon and purify the air. The rainforest ecosystem provides worldwide benefits, the loss of which would not only have devastating consequences to the earth’s balance but have equally devastating economic losses. And that’s without mentioning the climate warming effects of all the fires used to clear land. In Indonesia, a country of 270 million people, their greatest source of greenhouse gas are the fires used to clear land for plantations.
But what about how much land is being used for palm oil?
An astounding 10% of permanent cropland worldwide is taken up by palm oil plantations. Reportedly, 44 million acres (18 million hectares) are planted with palm oil worldwide and an estimated 60% of this land was converted directly from primary forest! Although I can’t be sure of the accuracy of these statements, these figures provide a shocking statistic which represents the scale of the problem.
Deforestation is heavily tied into the palm oil industry. According to the WWF (World Wildlife Fund), there are an estimated 20 million hectares of abandoned areas suitable for plantation in Indonesia. Despite this Palm oil companies will choose to destroy rainforests due to their ties with logging firms. This allows companies to get paid for the valuable timber as well as to plant palm oil trees.
Unfortunately, in the regions of South-East Asia land clearance comes coupled with other challenges, including corruption and illegal land clearance, problems which continue to threaten valuable rainforests.
Along with the abundant environmental devastation which palm oil production brings, it also involves human welfare issues. A direction not often highlighted in mainstream media. Plantations are taking the forest away from people who have lived off the land for centuries, pesticides used in plantations are poisoning watercourses which in turn make communities who rely on this water ill. Farmers lose their land to palm oil companies who are then forced to work at local plantations to make money to feed their family. And human rights violations among plantation workers are commonplace, with children as young as eight being found doing hazardous hard labour at plantations which supply palm oil to some of the biggest brands.
Sustainable palm oil.
The RSPO (Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil) began in 2004 by a group of environmental non-profits and palm oil companies. The roundtable was designed to prevent the worst aspects which come with palm oil cultivation, illegal deforestation, chemical pollution, destruction of biodiversity, water loss, poor employment conditions etc.
The RSPO is steadily improving to help reduce destruction associated with palm oil production, but this so-called ‘greener’ production does not come without its problems.
Finally, in November of 2018, 14 years after the start of the RSPO, RSPO members were banned from destroying forests. A ban which they suggested would take a few years to put in place, so currently, RSPO plantations continue to cut down forest without a worry. Furthermore, RSPO is known to be very lax at actually enforcing their standards, leaving many environmentalists understandably cynical. A feeling not helped by RSPO’s role in the forest fire crisis in Indonesia which occurred in 2015. Reportedly 3 quarters of the fires were linked to RSPO land, meaning that RSPO was at the forefront of Indonesia’s environmental crisis at that time. A crisis which anti RSPO bodies are still dwelling over.
In 2019 RSPO produced palm oil was accounting for 19% of global supply, however if most UK supermarket brands, and many other global brands turning to sustainable palm oil – what is happening to the remaining 81%? For a start WWF estimate that 50% of processed goods in supermarkets, from biscuits to soaps, contain palm oil. More than 50% of palm oil coming into Europe (excluding the UK) is used for biofuel.
Another negative point against RSPO is the fact that only a very small proportion of ‘sustainable’ palm oil is from a segregated supply. Which means a company should not make any claims that they use sustainable palm oil unless they use an RSPO certified supplier. You also have to be a member of the RSPO to use sustainably sourced oil palm, companies have been caught out by this in the past.
Going on the RSPO website (https://www.rspo.org/) will be able to help you with further understanding of this. From here you can find out or search for RSPO members, and discern what members may not even be using sustainable palm oil!
Why are we still using it?
We can gather that palm oil is now deeply embedded in our society. Palm oil has a high melting point which allows it to be used for a huge variety of products, Palm oil is not only found in food, but soaps and cosmetics use the oil, which has a property which helps skin retain its moisture. Animal fats also have the same properties but are far more expensive to produce. Today 70% of personal care products include palm oil or palm oil derivatives.
Palm oil is cheap to produce and highly efficient, palm plants are told to be about 10 times as productive as the familiar rapeseed or soya bean. A highly productive plant which offers a wide range of uses certainly has its benefits in today’s society.
Despite all the negatives and environmental impact caused the benefits of palm oil remain. It’s a major source of income for developing companies and has played a crucial part in the economic development of Southeast Asia and other regions. The importance of the crop has been recognised by the WWF and other environmental groups who are advocating for a reformed palm oil industry rather than a complete alternative commodity.
Whilst palm oil now appears to dominate the supermarket shelves, of all the palm oil consumed in food worldwide; India, China and Indonesia account for almost 40% of it. As Asia’s economy has grown more fats are being consumed and where soya oil was once used it has now been taken over by palm oil.
The palm oil industry has done a good job of completing world domination. With increased awareness, the backlash against the industry has also developed. The EU initially suggested a ban on palm oil imports for biofuel. But after huge protests from South East Asia, have settled for a gradual restriction of palm oil imports for biofuel with a complete ban being put in place in 2030.
Palm oil is so deeply embedded into our society that it is questioned it might be too late to remove it. Tellingly supermarket Iceland’s pledge to remove palm oil from all its own-brand products by the end of 2018 failed. Instead, they removed their branding from products which contained palm oil.
Maybe a reformed palm oil industry is the way forward? Either way, it’s unfortunately not as simple as ‘it’s fine cause it’s “sustainable”‘.
What can you do?
I think at this stage it’s still important to put pressure on brands using palm oil, they listen to their consumers and history shows they will change their policies if they feel they will miss out on sales! You can check companies on the RSPO website to see if they are members and you can see whether they have a segregated sustainable supply chain.
And of course, I think reducing your palm oil intake as much as you can is a good move. In place of palm oil for cooking/baking I recommend:
- Avocado oil – its healthy fats and anti-inflammatory benefits make it a great alternative.
- Olive oil – it’s just delicious
- Coconut oil – I am a massive fan, its full of all the healthy fats and is awesome for baking. You can substitute it in a 1:1 ratio in recipes using other butter and oils.
When trying to avoid palm oil its important to carefully check the label of the product. Palm oil and palm oil derivatives appear under other names than just ‘palm oil’. The industry has come up with sneaky ways of you buying palm oil without you even knowing it. Click here for a list of other names used for palm oil: https://www.treehugger.com/sustainable-agriculture/25-sneaky-names-palm-oil.html.