There's been a lot of coverage over the past couple of years on the topic of palm oil. Especially after Iceland's banned TV campaign featuring the heart-wrenching tale of an orphaned orangutan urging the public to boycott the oil in 2018.
This article is a plea to get the facts straight and urge you NOT to ban palm oil from your life, but seek out products which contain palm oil that's been sustainably sourced.
What is palm oil?
It is a vegetable oil derived from the fruit of palm trees.
You'll find it in food and cosmetics all over the world and chances are you will have used palm oil at some point in the last 24 hours - whether you cooked with it, applied it to your skin or spread it on your toast.
Palm oil is found in all sorts of everyday products including shampoo, peanut butter and lipstick.
What's the problem with palm oil?
Let me start by saying there are a myriad of complex issues surrounding the production of palm oil, so please excuse the simplicity of this section as it barely scrapes the surface...
Rising demand for palm oil has led to the clearing of tropical forests, (home of the palm tree) particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia.
The destruction of these forests is problematic for a number of reasons:
These trees are 'lungs' to our planet - absorbing harmful gases from the atmosphere such as sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide, and releasing clean oxygen through the process of photosynthesis.
Tropical forests are also amongst the most diverse habitats on the planet. They are home to numerous species, some of which are highly endangered including proboscis monkeys, Asian elephants, clouded leopards and of course the orangutan.
As a cheap and easy way to clear rainforests and create space for palm plantations, illegal fires are started. This is a particular problem in Indonesia.
These forest fires contribute to an annual 'haze crisis' which sends smoke billowing across Southeast Asia, causing widespread respiratory infections, a huge financial hit to trade & agriculture and a significant spike in greenhouse gas emissions.
As a final kick in the teeth, palm oil cultivation is also surrounded by a wealth of tricky social challenges. These include conflict between the indigenous communities living on company concessions, worker exploitation and labour abuses on oil palm plantations.
As things stand, 84% of global palm production is NOT certified sustainable and with little incentive for producers to seek sustainable certification, it remains a real challenge.
What does sustainable actually mean?
The definition of sustainable is something able to be maintained at a certain rate or level. Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s (RSPO) was founded in 2004.
They work with stakeholders across the palm oil sector to develop and implement standards for sustainable palm oil. In order to be certified sustainable, there are 40 criteria which must be adhered to.
Some of these standards include:
- No deforestation (including burning)
- Obtaining permission from communities who use the land before planting
- No exploitation of people or communities throughout the supply chain
- Assessing the conservation value of land before developing new plantations
- Driving positive social and economic impact for smallholders
Why boycotting palm oil would be problematic
If we stopped using palm oil, we would need to find substitutes to takes its place.
And with half the world's population using palm oil in food alone, the volume that would be required of this alternative is vast.
Whilst there are alternative vegetable oils – hooray! Their production is less efficient than that of palm oil – boo...
Alternative ingredients include soya and rapeseed oil. These require more space to grow than palm trees and also need more fertiliser, pesticides and energy.
To put this in to perspective - per hectare, you can produce four times more oil from palm than rapeseed. And if we started using soy instead of palm oil, we'd need ten times more land.
Therefore, boycotting palm oil and forcing the farming of alternatives would mean greater deforestation and the destruction of more natural habitats than growing palm oil.
Due to the massive demand, palm oil production also provides a vital source of income for many farmers in South East Asia, Central and West Africa, and Central America. The industry employs 6 million people worldwide.
2.2 million of these farmers live on the edge of poverty and rely on palm oil to feed, shelter and educate their families.
How to check you're buying sustainable palm oil (and brands to be highly suspicious of)
To be sure a product contains sustainable palm oil, I'm meant to tell you to look out for the RSPO logo - the reality is very few products actually feature it.
You could also look out for the Rainforest Alliance logo (more common). Whilst I haven't talked about their standards, seeking this logo also ensures environmental and social responsibility of ingredients in a product.
You could also hunt for certified companies on the RSPO website, but this list is of producers which isn't that helpful if you're seeking a particular brand...
Some large companies have made promises around palm oil, such as Unilever who only use sustainable palm oil in their products.
The Guardian have posted a comprehensive guide on palm oil sourcing from companies including McDonald's, Nestle, L'Oreal and Kellogg's. Find out who uses sustainable palm oil and who – rather suspiciously – won't tell us, by clicking the image below.
To conclude – don't boycott palm oil, but do buy sustainable
Greenpeace (the ones who actually created the TV ad that Iceland put their name to) now accepts that where vegetable oils are concerned, sustainably sourced palm oil is in fact the best solution.
In the 4 minutes you've been reading this post, a space the size of TWO football pitches has been cut down in tropical rainforests.
To find out more, check out The Guardian's interactive article: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/ng-interactive/2014/nov/10/palm-oil-rainforest-cupboard-interactive