What's the problem with palm oil and should we boycott it?

February 12, 2019

The environmental consequences of palm oil have been known for years, but Iceland got everyone talking about it in December with their banned advert. The ad illustrated how palm oil plantations are affecting orangutan populations by destroying their habitat and quickly went viral when the company shared it on social media. However, there is still confusion on whether it's better to carry on buying or to boycott. Read on for more information and how to be ethically conscious of your palm oil purchases.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil comes from the fruit of palm oil trees and is the world's most popular edible oil - around 66 million tons are produced every year! The trees are native to Africa, but were planted in South East Asia around 100 years ago, with Indonesia and Malaysia now supplying the majority of the world's palm oil.

Palm oil is present in countless products from food items to cosmetics and even fuel in some countries. It is a popular oil because it is cheap to produce and can be used in a wide variety of products as it has numerous useful properties, such as being:
- semi-solid at room temperature, making it an ideal choice for spreadable products
- colourless and odourless, so it won't interfere with the scent or look of foods
- stable at high temperatures, adding a crispy texture to fried foods
- resistant to oxidation, extending the shelf life of food

What's the problem?

Palm oil has and continues to cause severe deforestation of tropical rainforests, home to a wide range of plant and animal species. More than 3.5 million hectares of forest have been replaced with palm oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia over the last 20 years. This is negatively affecting populations of orangutans, Sumatran tigers, rhinoceros and elephants, and escalating cases of human-wildlife conflict as habitat loss drives these animals closer to urbanised areas.

Palm oil production also contributes to climate change. When rainforests are destroyed to make room for palm plantations, the carbon stored in them is released into the environment as carbon dioxide, which of course contributes to global warming. A lot of the forests that are destroyed grow on peatland. Peat soil is a water-saturated mixture of decomposed vegetation and contains a large amount of carbon. Peatlands are natural carbon sinks and contain around 18 - 28 times the carbon as the forests that grown on them. Destroying peatland releases around 6,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per hectare! In addition, peatland destruction takes away valuable ecosystem services as they naturally reduce flood risk by soaking up water and then release it slowly in the dry season, which provides clean drinking water.

The negative consequences of palm oil growth aren't purely environmental, human livelihoods are also affected. In order to clear peatland to plant palm oil trees, the soil first needs to be drained, making the area more susceptible to fire. When this occurs, the smoke released pollutes the air, greatly endangering the health of people working at the plantations. The smoke can also travel long distances. In 2015, smoke from forest fires in Indonesia reached as far as Singapore, causing smog and surpassing hazardous levels. The industry has also been known to violate human rights, for example workers, including young children, are expected to work long hours for little pay, and are exposed to dangerous chemicals often resulting in respiratory illnesses. Consequences could become even more catastrophic, as demand for palm oil is predicted to double by 2030, and triple by 2050.

Should we avoid palm oil?

As consumers, it seems an obvious solution to avoid products containing palm oil. Many articles recommend that we do so, which is misleading as it is not quite so simple. Avoiding palm oil and opting for another vegetable oil is not a viable option. One of the reasons that palm oil is so popular is that is an extremely efficient crop. In comparison, to grow an equivalent amount of coconut or soybean oil would require 10 and 4 times the land respectively, which would threaten more species and their habitat. Palm oil production is also a source of income for many people who would be affected by boycotts. This means that the current recommendation is to purchase products from companies who commit to using sustainable palm oil.

Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO)

The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) set up criteria in 2008 to address the problems caused by palm oil production and give consumers the chance to purchase sustainable palm oil. The guidelines aim to ensure that local communities, workers and the environment are all protected while also meeting the demand for palm oil. The guidelines can be read here, some of which are to commit to: 
- no clearing of primary forests, habitats of endangered species, fragile ecosystems
- reducing the use of pesticides
- reducing the use of fire
- fair treatment of workers 
- no clearing of land for plantations without prior permission of local communities 

Palm oil producers receive certification if they are found to be complying to the guidelines, and certification can be taken away if they break their commitment. If a product you're buying contains palm oil, check for the RSPO trademark to ensure it was produced sustainably. You can also view a list of approved companies here

The future of palm oil 

As consumers, the main way we can make a difference is with our wallets. Companies are motivated by profit and will change their ways if they feel under enough pressure. Supporting businesses and brands that care about where their palm oil comes from will go a long way in addressing the devastating environmental and social impacts that palm oil production is currently causing. 

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