With climate change wreaking havoc once again, August saw California devastated by the worst wildfire in 18 years, with global heating creating the perfect conditions for this disaster. Unfortunate events like this highlight the important conversations that need to continue taking place around our impact on the planet and its inhabitants.
When it comes to sustainable ingredients, things can be murky. According to research by the International Food Information Council Foundation, one in 10 adults aren’t confident that they know what a sustainable food label is.
Palm oil is a controversial ingredient in terms of environment and health, created from the fruit from the fruits of African palms. Palm oil is found in around half of all packaged products, a highly versatile commodity used widely from processed foods to cosmetics, soaps, and detergents as well as cooking oil, industrial lubrication, animal feeds, and fuel. For example, palm oil contributes to the texture and mouthfeel of things like biscuits—helping food become more enjoyable for you.
So, is palm oil bad?
To those who champion the use of palm oil, it is instrumental in economic development, is an efficient use of land, and helps millions of farmers make a living. To those who oppose it, it is a leading cause of deforestation, habitat destruction, social unrest, and climate change.
Here, we’ll take a look at the issues surrounding palm oil so you can decide whether you want to avoid it or not.
Is palm oil an efficient use of land?
You’re probably wondering why we use palm oil at all when it is so controversial and there are so many other sources and variations. Palm oil yields around four to 10 times more oil per hectare than other sources, including oil from soybeans or coconut palms. Simply using other sources of vegetable oil would shift the problem to other parts of the world and threaten other habitats and species. The amount of product created from each bit of land makes it efficient and profitable.
On the other hand, to grow palm trees, hectares of rainforests are burned, which destroys homes for indigenous populations, habitats for animals such as orangutans, and the already very fragile rainforest ecosystem. Oil palms now account for a combined area the size of Syria, the majority of which was previously covered with forest. Once palm trees that are being used to create palm oil grow too high, making it difficult to reach the fruit, they are cut down to grow new ones—in simpler terms, deforestation occurs. Both of these remove trees that are working to remove carbon dioxide from the air.
In tropical areas, palm oil accounts for around five per cent of tropical deforestation.
Does palm oil help economies?
Millions of peoples’ lives depend on palm oil, placing high economic value on it as a commodity. Producing palm oil equates to jobs, infrastructure, and tax revenue. According to Conservation, around 4.5 million people in Indonesia and Malaysia make a living from palm oil, and another 25 million people directly depend on its production financially. This means that palm oil plays a key role in reducing poverty, something that shouldn’t be considered lightly for third world countries who have less economic advantage than the UK. Palm oil helps drive the gross domestic product (GDP) for these emerging economies.
Similarly, fair trade products are used to ensure fair working rights for farmers for many commodities such as fair trade organic coffee—simply banning palm oil would put millions of jobs at risk. If you shop ethically and buy products that are fair trade, you probably care about considerations like this. Although yes, orangutans’ lives are important, so too are Indonesian and Malaysian peoples.
Does palm oil contribute to climate change?
According to research published in Nature Communications, cutting down rainforests and replacing it with palm oil plantations releases 61 per cent of the carbon dioxide stored in the forest back into the atmosphere—it was reported that Indonesia was releasing as much greenhouse emissions by deforestation as some of the richest countries were doing by burning fossil fuels.
Climate change is one of the biggest threats to humanity, and we should be working to reduce our impact on the planet. Many publications encourage shoppers to buy products that include sustainable palm oil as this ingredient is virtually impossible to avoid completely—FairPalm aims to help protect the environment while supporting smallholder growers. Fortunately, more companies are acknowledging this issue and working to source sustainable palm oil with respect for both the environment and local communities.
Plantations can be expanded into land that isn’t occupied by forests, for example cattle pastures, or planting palm trees among other trees and allowing them to grow naturally, removing the need to cut down millions of other trees to develop plantations.
While there are clear arguments for and against palm oil, what action will you take, if any at all?