There’s a huge debate taking place on the internet right now about palm oil. On one side, there are producers, who argue that it creates jobs and is a renewable resource (while also being the cheapest oil option).
On the other side, there are consumers, who argue that palm oil is bad for the environment, and that the workers who produce it are exploited. Why is there so much disagreement?
One of the world’s most popular foods, palm oil is used to make many everyday products, including food, cosmetics, cleaning products, and biofuels. But with the demand for palm oil continuing to grow, it’s having a devastating effect on the planet.
It’s driving the destruction of tropical rainforests and peatlands in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea, and threatening endangered species such as the orangutan. Much of the forest destruction is illegal, happening through burning and bulldozing, and destroying the habitats of these wildlife species.
Some palm oil is also cultivated on land that was once home to indigenous people, and its production can involve forced labor or child labor.
The main facts about palm oil
In the world of edible oils, palm has one of the worst reputations due to the high levels of bad fats found in its kernel. Palm oil is the most widely-used oil in the world, found in everything from chocolate to soap, and is used in everything from popcorn to bio-fuel.
While palm oil is less saturated than some other oils, it’s still not a good choice if you’re worried about your weight or heart health.
By now, most of us know that palm oil is bad for the environment. It is an ingredient in most of our everyday food and toiletries, and the world’s love affair with it is causing serious problems for the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia.
Most of us have also heard that palm oil is a major driver of climate change, since the tropical oils are produced at a very high carbon cost. This is true, but it’s not the full story.
Social and environmental impact of palm oil
While palm oil is extracted from a commercial crop, it is also destroying the world’s rainforests at an alarming rate. This is due to the need for land to plant the palms, and to grow the palm trees, the forests must be cleared. The trees are often burned, and the land then used for palm oil plantations.
The clearing of these forests is an enormous cause of deforestation, which is in turn a major contributor to air pollution and global warming.
When you open a product that contains palm oil, what do you think about? Chances are, you think nothing at all—probably because you aren’t aware that the palm oil inside was responsible for destroying a rainforest, displacing indigenous communities, or killing endangered species.
But in reality, many palm oil plantations are responsible for all of the above. Because of this, you should be thinking about palm oil. We should all be thinking about palm oil.
It is very rare that you will hear palm oil discussed without it being framed as a villain. The environmental impact of palm oil is huge and it is an important issue that needs to be addressed. The main driver of deforestation for palm oil is demand from the food and the biofuel industries.
But there is also a wider issue that the industry is facing that needs to be addressed, namely soil degradation.
Whether you’re looking for food, fuel, or a place to live, palm oil can be found in over half of all the products on grocery store shelves.
That’s a scary thought when you consider that palm oil cultivation is a leading cause of tropical rainforest destruction and world-wide soil degradation. (It’s also destroying oceanic ecosystems.)
In fact, palm oil production is one of the leading causes of deforestation in the world.
In Malaysia and Indonesia, two of the top three producers of palm oil, forests are clear-cut to make room for palm trees. These once lush forests are then replaced with monoculture palm oil plantations.
Loss of critical habitat for endangered species
The loss of critical habitat for endangered species has been widely discussed as an impact of palm oil production in tropical ecosystems.
Deforestation for palm oil production not only threatens the numerous species of flora and fauna that call these forests home, but also the indigenous people that have lived in harmony with their environment for centuries.
However, there are alternative crops, such as sunflower that can also be grown on previously cleared land, and that could potentially keep these forests intact.
Greenhouse gas emissions
For a number of years now, environmental groups have been pushing for the removal of palm oil from the diets of consumers and governments worldwide. The reason for this push is that palm oil is considered to be one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the world.
According to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the largest producers of palm oil in the world are Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Together, the three countries account for about 85% of the world’s total palm oil production.
While the palm oil used for biofuel and other industrial purposes has been the primary focus of the environmental groups, there is another side to the industry that has become a major source of carbon emissions.
Choosing Palm-Oil-Free Products
There is a whole range of products available that have been tested for traces of palm oil. It is essential to look for the certification trademark on the packaging, which you can find on the website of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
Whether you’re a conscious consumer or not, chances are you’ve used palm oil at some point. It’s in the food you eat, the beauty products you use, and the cleaning products you buy. Since palm oil is in so many things, it’s hard to avoid, and making sure you avoid it is difficult.