Talk to the Palm
Recently there has been lots of anti-palm oil promotion in my news feed. Since beginning the Green18 challenge, and probably long before, I have been aware of the destructive consequences of the dreaded palm oil but have known little about it. So I decided to do some digging!
What is palm oil?
Palm oil is made from the fruits of trees called the African oil palms. As the name suggests, these originated in Africa but were introduced to Malaysia and Indonesia in the 19th and 20th centuries, after which these countries became leading producers of the oil.
What is palm oil used for?
Palm oil is said to be found in over half of all supermarket products! This ranges from pizzas to margarine to chocolate to soaps and candles. Sometimes you can catch it because it is labelled as palm oil or palm fat - however, frequently it is hidden by pseudonyms. This isn’t all though! Palm oil can also be used as a biofuel, accounting for 8% of all palm oil produced. Under EU law, the blending of biofuels (i.e. palm oil) is required, putting palm oil in every litre of our diesel...
Why is palm oil so special?
Palm oil plantations produce 4-10 times more oil per hectare than any other alternative crops, making it not only the cheapest vegetable oil on the planet, but also an excellent choice in times where the cultivated land to people ratio is so stretched. As well as this, it requires little to no herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers. As an oil, palm oil has unique properties that also put it ahead of the competition: it maintains its properties under high temperatures; it is smooth and creamy and has no smell; and, it is naturally preserving, which helps to increase the shelf life of the food it is in.
So why is palm oil so hated?
Palm oil requires a consistently hot and humid climate to grow, making the tropical rainforest the perfect host. This has resulted in extensive deforestation to make way for the palm oil plantations. It is estimated that palm oil plantations led to 8% of the global deforestation between 1990 and 2008, and 90% of the total deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. A by-product of deforestation is a decrease in absorption of greenhouse gases and the release of greenhouse gases that are so successfully stored in the plants. As well as this, biodiverse ecosystems are destroyed leading to the decline and endangerment of hundreds of species such as the orangutan, Sumatran tigers and Bornean rhinos. Environment aside, palm oil is high in saturated fats that lead to high cholesterol, obesity and heart disease as well as containing some dodgy fatty acid esters that are considered carcinogenic (but what isn’t…?!).
But what about sustainable palm oil?
The RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) is a central body set up by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). This certifies sustainable palm oil that adheres to certain legal, economical, environmental and social criteria. On paper, this looks absolutely fantastic; it preserves jobs for the 4.5 million Malaysians and Indonesians that rely on palm oil for their income and it preserves primary forest that is rich in biodiversity or cultural importance, if not both. As well as this, the certification ensures that use of pesticides and clearing by fire are restricted, that workers rights and labour standards are upheld, and that local communities aren’t over-powered by large capitalist corporations. Sounds excellent!
I don’t wish to take away from any of the hard work that the WWF, RSPO and many others have put into making a horrifically destructive industry much better. However, I remain very torn about my preferred path forwards: palm oil, sustainable palm oil or alternative vegetable oil.
I think we can automatically discount bog-standard palm oil because it can’t compete with it’s sustainable big brother. Then it becomes a much tighter race.
If we were at the starting point of our journey and making the decision about which oil to use, I would recommend going nowhere near palm oil to save the rainforests that have subsequently been cleared for it. But now we are in a state where a dramatic fluctuation in western demand can have devastating effects on the developing countries that cater to our needs. Without palm oil, millions of people will be out of work, without food and we could potentially be on the brink of a humanitarian crisis. My choice, and what I would advise you now, is to cut out any palm oil that isn’t certified as sustainable, to limit sustainable palm oil to a minimum but by no means attack all palm oil products in your cupboards and on your shelves because the alternative answer isn't out there yet. I believe there are greater issues that we can tackle directly at home. For example, in several cases, cutting out plastic will also cut out palm oil, and plastic is much more at the forefront of my environmental mind both because of the constant barrage in the headlines but also because of the sheer challenge to remove it that lies ahead.
This conversation is definitely not over but, once again, for now we are stuck with the decisions of our ancestors.