Palm oil can be found in close to 50% of supermarket products; in foods like chocolate and nut butters; unexpected items like cosmetics including deodorant, soap, lipstick and shampoo; and cleaning products such as laundry powders and detergents. In some countries, it’s even used in biofuels.
Palm oil comes from the fruit of African oil palm trees; a tree that has been exported to other countries due to increasing demand. Today, approximately 85% of the global supply of palm oil comes from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.
In the marketing year of 2019/2020, 72.27 million metric tonnes of palm oil were produced. A majority of which were exported to Britain, the EU, China, India and the US.
The use of palm oil is abundant but, as most of us are aware, controversial.
The scale of global demand has put great pressure on the workers, manufacturers and countries producing palm oil. This has resulted in the induction of a multitude of problems in the manufacturing process.
Oil palm tree plantations are currently thought to cover over 27 million hectares of the Earth’s surface. As the demand for palm oil increases each year, masses of land must be cleared to make space for these plantations, most often species rich rainforests and peatlands. This is known as deforestation and is hugely problematic for a number of reasons:
- Forests, rainforests and peatlands act as carbon sinks, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it as carbon. Carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, absorbs and traps heat energy from the sun within the ozone layer causing global temperatures to rise. Rainforests and peatlands help to stabilise the climate by reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen in a process called photosynthesis. Rainforests and peatlands are thought to hold about 45% of the world’s carbon, when they are destroyed the stored carbon is released whilst available stores are reduced.
- Clearing occasionally takes place by fire. This releases high levels of black soot and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further contributing to global warming. Smoke also pollutes the air with a thick haze and intoxicates neighbouring water supplies, affecting local communities. The production process also releases greenhouse gases and various waste products impacting the environment and local communities.
- Many animals and habitats are harmed, killed and destroyed, replaced by uninhabitable green deserts, leading to a reduction in global biodiversity. Global palm oil production is affecting at least 193 species, many of which are endangered including orangutans, Pygmy elephants and Sumatran rhinos.
- Deforestation can also disrupt human settlements.
Another huge problem with palm oil is exploitation of labour forces.
- In 2016, Amnesty International released a report revealing findings suggesting some palm oil plantations in Indonesia were using child labour and exposing employees to hazardous conditions. This is not the first report of such a nature, suggesting that exploitation within the industry is a serious issue. Palm oil from these corrupted sources has been traced forward to corporate giants such as Unilever, Nestlé and P&G.
- There have been reports of employees being severely underpaid and physically overworked.
- In areas with vast plantations owned by international palm oil moguls, local communities can suffer economically because of lost access to land that is not sufficiently compensated for by economic gains from palm oil production.
The abundance of palm oils use stems from its versatile properties and functions; at room temperature it is semi-solid giving it spreadable qualities, it is resistant to oxidation lending it a long shelf life, it is stable at high temperatures giving food a crispy texture when fried, and it is odourless and colourless so doesn’t alter the appearance or smell of foods.
The benefits of palm oil don’t lie with its physical properties alone. Oil palm trees grow very quickly, can be harvested all year round and require less pesticides and fertilisers than other plant oil crops. Also, the production of palm oil is undeniably efficient, producing a much higher yield of 3.3 tonnes per hectare of plant crop compared to equivalent vegetable oils (soybean or coconut, for example), which often produce less than 1 tonne per hectare of crop. This means that in order to produce the same volume of an alternative vegetable oil, you’d require more crops and thus, more land – this would be worse for the environment.
The problems associated with palm oil are horrific, however; we must not boycott palm oil usage, but rather set out to ensure that it is produced sustainably and ethically.
Whilst palm oil can have negative impacts on local communities (as mentioned); it is also an essential commodity on which so many communities depend. Palm oil is a source of work to locals and income to smallholder farmers and plantation workers, and many people rely on it for their livelihood. The scale of export also makes it important for the GDP of economies around the world. In Africa and Asia, domestically produced palm oil is the most dominant cooking oil used, making it integral to many people’s diet. Furthermore, boycotting palm oil could lead to diminished efforts to produce sustainable palm oil, directly impacting those who depend on it.
The solution requires structural change by corporations, consumers, suppliers, and national and international institutions.
So, what can be done to help?
- Familiarise yourself with certification schemes that ensure sustainable practice and promote transparency within the supply chain.
- Get clued up on brands that are actively making an effort to encourage sustainable and ethical behaviour.
A great resource for checking to see whether brands, services, manufacturers and retailers are committed to a responsible palm oil future can be found at:
- Only buy products containing palm oil if it is sustainably and ethically sourced. This will help to drive the demand for sustainable and ethical palm oil, creating incentives for producers to develop their practices.
- Companies should ensure they know whom and where they are buying from.
- Companies should be transparent about supply chains with their consumers.
- Companies should support and invest in smallholders and sustainable initiatives.
- Deforestation of native forests must be stopped to save the planet. Agriculturally usable land should be used instead.
- Good agricultural practices must be complied with.
- Agricultural workers and labour must be paid and treated correctly.
- Child labour is unacceptable.
- The rights of indigenous landowners and local communities should be ensured at all costs.
- Sustainable and ethical practices should be legalised, making adherence a law.
The responsibility to push production to entirely sustainable and ethical practice is just as much ours as consumers, as it is the corporations and producers, even if one does not consume any palm oil. Educate others on the problems faced within the industry.
There are a number of programmes that have been set up to enforce the above. Some to note include:
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)
- Formed in 2004 in response to concerns about the impacts of palm oil on the environment and society.
- It set a standard for proper practices in the production and sourcing of palm oil, helping to bring certified sustainable palm oil to the market.
Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG)
- Founded in 2013 to build upon the RSPO.
- Aims to ensure responsible palm oil production practices.
- Create, invest in and promote innovations.