Palm oil is one of those ingredients we hear about a lot, and is generally considered to be A Bad Thing. So, what’s the deal with palm oil?
What is palm oil?
In essence (and on lots of food labels) it’s vegetable oil. Specifically, vegetable oil derived primarily from the African oil palm tree. It’s been a common cooking ingredient in parts of the world with indigenous crops for a very long time, but has grown in industrial usage because it offers higher yields than other vegetable oil crops, thus reducing the cost to producers for the same volume. Recent estimates state that palm oil accounts for 60% of global vegetable oil trade.
What’s the problem?
The main problem is that widespread use of palm oil in commercial products (not just food, but cosmetics too) has meant planting and harvesting on an industrial scale. Growing trees takes time and space, so this industry has had to reach far and wide around the world to keep yields high and consistent. To make things worse, oil palms decline in yield after about 20 years, and are then razed and replanted. Because the crop only thrives in tropical areas, the industry has focused on Africa, South America, and South East Asia, with Malaysia and Indonesia seeing the most profound impact – 85% of global production is based in Malaysia and Indonesia. Reports indicate that palm oil production was the leading cause of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, and 2011 estimates indicated that palm oil production would double by 2020.
Palm oil is usually planted in ‘monocrops’ (i.e large areas all the same) and, to save money on fertilizer and land preparation of uncultivated land, growers are instead clearing forest to create palm oil plantations. Palm oil cultivation often involves very heavy fertilizer and pesticide use. Sometimes plantations are established on former rubber plantations, but the majority are now established on previously ‘virgin’ forest. This is bad news on several fronts:
Climate Change – most primary school children can probably tell you that deforestation is bad for the environment, because it removes established CO2 exchanging trees and replaces them with saplings which are cut down before they reach full maturity. On top of this, the peat forests of Malaysia and Indonesia act as ‘carbon sinks’, storing carbon more efficiently than any other ecosystem on earth. When you add the trappings of industrial forestry to that (including air pollution from road building, transportation and other industrialisation), and the high instance of fires during land preparation, the net effect on climate change is significant.
Biodiversity – ecosystems are fragile things, and in the relatively untouched rainforest, this holds true. Existing forest provides a stable habitat for thousands of species, many of which aren’t found anywhere else on earth. They exist in delicate balance, with plant-based food sources, predators and prey co-existing. When palm oil plantations arrive, those species that survive the razing of the existing forest and the industrial activity that follows find themselves homeless, and often with a much scarcer food supply. Their communities are unsettled, interrupting mating seasons and scattering populations.
Social disruption – alongside the disruption to non-human animals, large-scale plantations can also disrupt local communities, particularly where their livelihoods, infrastructure or social framework are undermined. Land acquisition for palm oil plantations is often disruptive to existing schemes of land use and ownership, and can be exploitative of local communities, as seen in Nigeria, Liberia, and elsewhere.
Working conditions – in many regions, palm oil production is associated with exploitative and unsafe working conditions, including forced labour and child labour. Workers may be trafficked, unpaid, and subject to dangerous conditions and discrimination.
How’s the future looking?
Not so bright. In Malaysia, industry has successfully lobbied for rubber plantations to be classified in the same way as existing indigenous forest. If they achieve the same thing for palm plantations, any conversion of indigenous forest to palm plantation won’t show up in environmental statistics, meaning fewer hoops to jump through and less oversight.
The damage to biodiversity and habitats mean that palm plantations directly contribute to the endangerment of numerous fauna and flora species, including the Asian elephant, the orangutan, the Sumatran rhinoceros, and the tiger. As the communities of those remaining in each species become increasingly fragmented, the chances of recovery and escape from endangerment decrease, bringing us ever closer to losing these species forever.
Similarly, as we lose peatlands and rainforest, we’re losing rare plant species and extremely old and established ecosystems that will be impossible to replace. Their value for animals, people, and the environment cannot be overstated, partly because much of it is unknown. We will only realise the full impact of this destruction when it is already too late to reverse or slow it.
In terms of climate change, the rainforests are regularly referred to as the ‘lungs of the earth’ – they do a huge amount of CO2/oxygen exchange, and the peatlands provide carbon ‘sinks’ which absorb and store carbon.
Be wary of lobbying groups. Some of the most well-known pressure groups have a conflicting position on this issue, which muddies the waters and weakens the strength of their lobbying.
What’s happening already?
Based in Malaysia, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) are working to certify production practices and the companies and products that use palm oil. The product list is short at the moment, but does include Whole Earth peanut butter and some more well-known (in the UK) brands like soap from Co-Op and Waitrose, and Jordans cereals.
The thing is,there’s an awful lot of scepticism about the effectiveness and motivation of this group. There is some concern that they serve as a way of legitimizing the continued mass-scale production of palm oil (is this our old friend greenwashing again?). Cadbury’s, Nestle, and Tesco are all signed up to the scheme, but widespread deforestation and associated environmental and workforce issues continue – one of the world’s largest producers, Wilmar International, committed to a swathe of improvements by 2015, yet were believed to be responsible for a recent land grab in Nigeria, destroying an area of High Conservation Value and having significant negative impact on local communities. In fact, by legitimising ‘good’ palm oil in this way, the RSPO may actually increase demand. As we’ve noted above, with the specific climate required for palm oil, the majority of viable space for growing his crop remains rainforest, which is problematic however you slice it.
Whilst Friends of the Earth have come out strongly against the work of the RSPO and in favour of complete palm-oil avoidance, the WWF are actually a founding member of the RSPO. It’s a tangential issue, but in cooperating with industry-driven schemes like this, the WWF is legitimizing the use of these loopholes, and giving concerned consumers a second layer of security that there can be such a thing as ‘sustainable’ palm oil.
How can we fix it?
This is where it gets pretty tough, for a couple of reasons:
- Information: palm oil can be classified as ‘vegetable oil’ on labels, so it can be really difficult to be certain whether a particular product is palm-oil free. There are more than 200 alternative names for palm oil including Palmitate, Stearic Acid, Clyceryl Stearate-Cocopalm, Sodium Stearate, Sodium Laurel Sulphate and Retinyl Palmitate. Cosmetics particularly favour the botanical name, elaeis guineensis. A few brands are beginning to label products as ‘palm oil free’, but this brings us to the second problem…
- Cost: brands are savvy, and they’ve realised that many people are willing (and some are able) to spend extra cash for the assurance that their products are palm-oil free. Take peanut butter, for example. Whole Earth produce several types of peanut butter, all boasting organic certification, and salt and sugar free. So far, so good. But 227g of their ‘100% nuts’ palm oil free will set you back £2.89, compared with £2.49 for their standard offering. Pip & Nut are another popular brand, and their palm-oil free peanut butter is £2.30 for 250g. When you compare that with £1.30 for 340g of supermarket own brand, you can see the premium.
- Time: a great way of reducing your palm oil consumption is to make more food from scratch, and I know there are those who buy peanuts in bulk and roast and blitz them to make their own peanut butter, and that’s great – I bet it tastes amazing. For some of us, that’s a once-in-a-while kitchen adventure, rather than something we could manage to do regularly, but if more home cooking is something you are able to move towards, this is another great reason to do so
I should say that during the research and writing of this article, I’ve realised that there are a lot of items in my own home that contain ‘hidden’ palm oil, and I’ll be working to phase those out as soon as I can. As and when we find good alternatives, we’ll post them up here so you can incorporate them into your own shopping if you like.
By starting to be more aware and make palm-oil free choices wherever possible, we can reduce the market demand for palm-oil, whilst also indicating that there is a strong market for palm-oil free options.
Lobbying for explicit labelling of palm oil (cutting down on those 200+ names, and the illusion of ‘vegetable oil’) would be a huge step in empowering consumer choices.
Ethical Consumer produce a list of palm-oil free products, which is a great place to start.