Palm Oil, good or bad?

Palm oil is a vegetable oil that is produced by simple steaming and pressing (Palm Oil Health), much like how olive oil is produced. Global consumption has risen from 14.6 million tonnes in 1995 to 61.1 million tonnes in 2015 (EPOA). This vegetable fat can be found in 50% of packaged goods, baked goods, cosmetic and cleaning products in supermarkets (Rainforest Rescue). Even though palm oil is widely popular it might be a bit tricky investigating product labels for a direct reference as it comes under various names, a few being: vegetable oil, vegetable fat, sodium lauroyl lactylate/sulphate, hydrogenated palm glycerides, ethyl palmitate, octyl palmitate, palmityl alcohol, palm kernel, palm kernel oil, palm fruit oil, palmate, palmitate, palmitic acid, palmitoyl oxostearamide, glyceryl, stearate, sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium palm kernelate.

The popular ingredient needs hot and moist conditions to thrive in. Conditions that are commonly found in rainforests, more specifically within 10 degrees north or south of the equator. Malaysia and Indonesia account for around 90% of the entire world’s palm oil production (Palm Oil Investigations). Why is it so popular you might ask? One reason is its ability to maintain its properties even under high temperatures, as the highest-yielding vegetable crop it produces up to 10 times more oil per unit as compared to soya beans and sunflowers (Earth and World). It also requires less than half the land required by other crops to product the same amount of oil, making it the cheapest vegetable oil in the world.

Even though palm oil has very recently come under scrutiny as Iceland released their Christmas advert and it was banned from the UK as it was ‘deemed to breach political advertising rules’, the debate on whether it’s good or evil can be dated back on the web to 2011.

 The banned advert has had about 30 million views over social media streams. (Image Source: PA/Greenpeace)

The banned advert has had about 30 million views over social media streams. (Image Source: PA/Greenpeace)

The Iceland advert was originally produced by Greenpeace, it shows a cartoon orangutan mourning the loss of its home, a forest, that was wiped out to make way for palm oil plantations. Just like Brazil is clearing hectares of its rainforests to make way for cattle ranching, countries with optimal conditions to grow palm oil are doing the same. The WWF states that up to 300 football fields of forest are cleared every hour to make room for palm plantations.

This sensitive video has led to many questioning their unconscious usage of products featuring palm oil derivatives, is there a way to curb our thirst for it and use other more sustainable products?

It is said that in the past 10 years, the orangutan population has decreased by 50% as the result of habitat loss from the forest clearing for palm plantations (The Orangutan Project), at this rate many experts have estimated that orangutans could become extinct in the wild in less than 25 years. Not only are orangutans a victim of deforestation, but there are around 300,000 different animals found in the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra. These animals are being killed, injured and displaced due to the clearing of forests, they’re also at a higher risk by poachers and wildlife smugglers due to the increased accessibility. Apart from the impacts on wildlife, lies the impact on the environment- deforestation to make way for the palm plantations puts a huge strain on the biodiversity of the forests and ecosystems in the country. The ‘most efficient’ removal of the native forests is by burning invaluable timber, which releases vast quantities of fumes into the air- making Indonesia the third highest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.

 Smog engulfs the forest as an annual slash and burning starts. (Image Source: CNN)

Smog engulfs the forest as an annual slash and burning starts. (Image Source: CNN)

Wildlife and animals are as greatly affected as the local communities, indigenous communities have witnessed the government hand over their land to private companies and have subsequently become laborers on their own land. This dilemma dates to 1967 but started to get worse towards the late 1990s as locally elected officials began to exercise virtually total control of land allocation and used it to facilitate access for plantation companies that didn’t abide by environmental warnings or regulations. The problem here might not be so much palm oil as a crop but instead its profitability and the multinational companies that want to take a bite out of this profit.

As soon as Iceland’s advert went viral, several petitions popped up on the web urging people to join in the collective boycotting of palm oil and all its derivate products. While this seems like an understandable stance, there has been a lot of talking that this could bring more harm than good to the forests of Indonesia and like countries. A report published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature stated that blacklisting palm oil would ‘just shift losses to wildlife and animals instigated by agriculture’, instead of reducing them. If palm oil was completely boycotted then we would need another vegetable oil to replace it and meet the vast global demand that comes with it, this would be even more devasting on rainforests as palm oil plantations would need to be eradicated to grow another crop which will yield much less product and require far more pesticides and fertilizers, This dilemma can be almost be mirrored to our problem with fossil fuels- our energy demand is ever-growing, it’s relatively easy to obtain and efficient through fossil fuels and we know its damaging our planet and that there are other options we should take, but right now they’re not very viable (e.g. solar power, which is  not yet economically viable as it’s expensive and relies heavily on government assistance.)

 ‘If all palm oil production was regulated and sustainable, would it be okay?’

The definition of ‘sustainability’ can differ from person to person, let alone from nation to nation. Even though organizations such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) strive for transparency so that their growers are RSPO certified, it’s a very difficult thing to ensure- a lot of farmers just tend to a few hectares and sell bunches of the palm oil fruit for cash to traders. This is just one of 8 principles that the RSPO expects from growers, so one can imagine how challenging it must be to perform well against all of them put together. Greenpeace released a report in 2013 that demonstrates that the RSPO wasn’t producing anything close to truly sustainable palm oil and the Roundtable was in-fact certifying forest destruction mainly through slash-and-burn approaches to clear forests. In June 2018 new research was published in Environmental Research Letters comparing environmental, social and economic performance between certified and non-certified plantations, concluding that there was ‘no significant evident to suggest RSPO was better in achieving any of those metrics compared to non-certified plantations’.

As the world population is growing, so is the demand for this vegetable oil which means its production needs to be stepped up – this would expand the reach of organizations such as the RSPO if all palm oil were to be regulated, which so far haven’t been able to stick to what they promise.

So that leaves us as in question as before… what are your thoughts on palm oil?

Let us know!