What’s the issue with Palm Oil?

Over the last few years I’ve seen articles and videos about Palm Oil and how it’s bad for the environment. I don’t know what palm oil actually is and how can something that is found in so many everyday products be bad for the environment. What is it? Where does it come from? What everyday products contain it? Is sustainable palm oil really sustainable? What are the alternatives? As someone who is studying towards a BSc in Environmental Science, I’m learning to question the source of a statistic; are they showing us the whole picture and what is their agenda. Some organisations will only tell us what they want us to know because it fits within the agenda, that can sometimes mean the reader has been misled. I want to find out for myself what’s the issue with palm oil.

What is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is a vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of the oil palm tree. It’s scientific term is Elaeis guineensis. It’s quite cheap and therefore popular.

Where does it come from?

Although, Oil Palm trees are native to Africa, they are now grown in almost all tropical climates around the world close to the equator, within 10 degrees north or south, and part of tropical rainforests that are rich in biodiversity. According to greenpalm.org, the top five biggest producers of palm oil in 2015 were; Indonesia: 33.4 million tonnes, Malaysia: 19.9 million tonnes, Thailand: 1.8 million tonnes, Colombia: 1.2 million tonnes and Nigeria: 0.94 million tonnes.

How is palm oil produced?

I think to understand it’s apparent link to deforestation, we need to briefly look at how it’s produced. In order to produce palm oil, forests, including their inhabitants, need to be cleared. You may be familiar with seeing images of Orangutans in relation to palm oil deforestation. The seeds are then planted to create a plantation and takes about four to five years for oil palms to grow to a point where their fruit is ready to be harvested. The tree will then produce fruit for about thirty years. In a video produced by GreenTV, it claims 45% of the producers of palm oil are smallholders lifting them out of poverty.

What everyday products contain palm oil?

According to an article by GoodToKnow, the following products contain palm oil; Wall’s Soft Scoop Ice Cream, Dairy Milk chocolate and Maltesers, Flora Buttery margarine, Ritz crackers, Batchelors Super Noodles, Head and Shoulders shampoo, Dove original soap and much more.

How to identify if a product contains palm oil?

There are many products that use palm oil but isn’t always clear on the label.

Different names for palm oilIn order to help, the the WWF have put together a list helping you identify whether the product contains palm oil from its ingredients list; Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hyrated Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol, Isopropyl palmitate, ethylhexyl palmitate

I had a look around my bathroom and, based on the above list, the following everyday products contain palm oil; Cien Aloe Vera Bath soap (Sodium Palm Kernelate), Carex Original handwash (Sodium Laureth Sulfate), Colgate Max White White Crystals Toothpaste (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate), Cien Baby Shampoo (Sodium Laureth Sulfate), Oilatum Junior Bath Additive (Isopropyl palmitate), Maybelline Dream Brightening Creamy Concealer (ethylhexyl palmitate). The ingredients were on the item, the only one where it wasn’t displayed on the pack (probably on the cardboard box) was the toothpaste which why there’s a hyperlink to the product. 

Is sustainable palm oil really sustainable?

During my own research of palm oil, I keep coming across the term ‘sustainable palm oil’. I was intrigued by this notion so I decided to see what that means. The Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has set a global standard made up of oil palm growers, NGOs, retailers and manufacturers requiring a company to pledge they won’t clear any new forests and transparency in their processes. They have their own logo so consumers can identify whether the product contains sustainable palm oil. As the forest has already been cleared, that land may as well be reused for further plantations and the need for clearing further rainforests won’t be necessary. Although, I am struggling to find out what happens to the tree after it’s 30 years life span is up.

What are the alternatives?

One thing I have learned during my research is that giving up palm oil completely I don’t think is the answer, especially considering all the products we use that contain it. There are so many families and communities that rely on this income to life them out of poverty. Boycotting or even substituting palm oil won’t solve the problem, it will just shift the problem elsewhere. There is quite a bit of debate as to whether the role of the RSPO go far enough as cannot enforce their rules. Changes need to come from as high up as government levels.

After carrying out my research, it’s  really difficult to know what to do for the best; by giving up palm oil completely will, in my opinion, move the problem elsewhere and many people rely on palm oil just to put food on the table. I now question how sustainable ‘sustainable palm oil’ really is. I’ve seen many articles about the lack of power the RSPO actually possess.

The damage we are doing by being reliant on palm oil is awful but I really don’t know what the solution is?

 

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