By Charlotte Hawkins, Volunteer Contributor
No doubt you will have seen recent news headlines saying that a major British supermarket chain will no longer be using palm oil in their own-brand products. As palm oil production has increased exponentially over the past 35 years, the impact on the environment and the welfare of the indigenous populations and wildlife is becoming increasingly clear. Despite this, many people have still not heard of palm oil, or know of the issues that surround its production.
What is it?
- Palm oil is derived from the pulp of the African oil palm tree which grows anywhere where there is abundant rain and heat.
- Because of the ideal climate and cheap labour costs, 85% of it is produced in Malaysia and Indonesia.
- Palm oil accounts for 30% of the world's vegetable oil production.
What is it used for?
- It has been used as a cooking oil for 5,000 years. During the Industrial Revolution it also began to be used as a machine lubricant and in soap and candle manufacture.
- Nowadays it is used in food production and a wide range of household goods, such as shampoos, cosmetics and washing detergents. More than half of all supermarket products contain palm oil.
- Over 70% of it is grown for use in processed foods such as biscuits, chocolate, margarine and peanut butter.
- Around 5% of palm oil production is currently used to create biofuels – an alternative to fossil fuels. Largely because of the increase in demand as a biofuel, compared to the year 2000, palm oil demand is expected to double by 2020 and triple by 2050, although it is far from clear that this is a more environmentally friendly alternative to using fossil fuels.
Why is it used?
- It has a high saturated fat content of 50% which means it is semi-solid at room temperature, giving it properties that are not matched by other vegetable oils which have a higher unsaturated fat content.
- This is particularly useful to food manufacturers, as it is being used to replace partially hydrogenated vegetable oils which have been recognised as being damaging to human health and are being phased out of our food supply.
Is it healthy?
- Traditionally it was used in its unrefined state. Palm oil is naturally red due to the carotenes it contains. It is also rich in vitamin E.
- Now it is always used in its processed state, known as RBD (refined, bleached and deodorised) to remove any natural colour, taste or scent. Unfortunately, this process also removes the beneficial nutrients the oil naturally possesses.
- It is controversial as a food oil due its high saturated fat content. There is now significant debate as to whether saturated fat is indeed as bad for our health as was once thought, but given its highly processed state, it is unlikely to be better or worse than other highly processed vegetable oils. It is believed to be less damaging to our health than the man-made trans-fats it is now used to replace.
Are there any benefits of palm oil production?
- Proponents argue that it is a highly efficient crop to produce, as the oil palm yields ten times more oil per hectare than other vegetable oils such as soy and canola, and growth involves fewer pesticides. They argue that growing an alternative crop on a mass scale would be even more damaging.
So what is all the controversy?
*Photo courtesty of www.worldwildlife.org
- According to the World Wildlife Fund, an area the size of 300 football pitches is cleared per hour to make way for oil palm plantations.
- The destruction of rainforest – which acts as a cooling mechanism for the earth – contributes enormously to climate change by raising the earth's temperature.
- On top of that, the burning of forests means that Indonesia is now the third largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.
- One third of mammals in Indonesia are critically endangered. It is estimated that if nothing changes, Sumatran tigers will become extinct in the wild within 3 years, and orangutans in 5-10 years.
- Over 90% of orangutan habitat has been destroyed in the last 20 years, and it is estimated that 50,000 orangutans have been killed during that period, many of them by being burnt or buried alive.
- In addition to those killed by deforestation, orangutans are often brutally maimed and killed by workers who are concerned for their own safety. Baby orangutans are taken by poachers to be sold as pets.
*Photo courtesty of Greenpeace
- Over a quarter of the Indonesian population are affected by palm oil production. Many of these indigenous peoples have had their land sold by their government to palm oil production companies. Often local people have no idea that their land has been sold until company workers begin to clear it.
- Once their natural habitat has been destroyed, it is not possible for indigenous people to continue their previous way of life so they have no choice but to work for palm oil producers. Working conditions are dangerous with long hours, and due to the lack of other employment options, palm oil producers can get away with paying subsistence wages.
*Photo courtesty of bulatlat.com
But isn't sustainable palm oil OK?
- The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established by big multinational corporations in 2001 due to growing consumer concerns over palm oil production.
- It has been criticised as a "greenwashing" scheme established to appease consumers rather than out of a genuine interest in protecting the environment, wildlife and local people. Standards are low, and the criteria for certification do not offer a genuine guarantee that the oil produced is sustainable.
- Although it is not permissible for virgin rainforest to be destroyed for RSPO certified palm oil, the clearing of peat lands and secondary forests is still allowable. Peat lands have a valuable role in the ecosystem, storing much of the world's carbon, and burning them releases large amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.
What can I do?
- The best thing every consumer can do is to stop buying products that contain palm oil. As it is so ubiquitous in both processed food and household goods, it will require some careful reading of labels. It rarely appears as simply "palm oil" but often as a chemical name such as palmitate, palmitic acid or palmitoyl. These names are a bit of a give-away, but it is often labelled under more opaque names such as stearic acid or sodium lauryl sulfate. If in doubt, Google might be able to help!
- True food sells many products that are palm oil-free, in particular toiletries, household goods and foods such as peanut butter, chocolate and biscuits. Supermarket equivalents of these usually contain palm oil.
- If you want to take it a step further, you can join or donate money to organisations such as Say No to Palm Oil which actively campaign against the destruction of our planet for palm oil plantations.