Everything you need to know about palm oil

4 December 2018

Palm oil has come under scrutiny for years, due to its devastating impact on the world’s rainforests and the inadequate worker conditions associated with its production. But a recent campaign led by Iceland and Greenpeace has bulldozed the topic to the forefront of public debate on climate change. Here’s everything you need to know about palm oil, and how you can help combat deforestation and species extinction.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is made from the fruit of the African oil palm tree. It’s a hugely versatile ingredient – you’ll find it in around half of all supermarket products, from biscuits to beauty products.

It’s grown in a variety of countries throughout Asia, Africa and South America, but the biggest producers of palm oil are Indonesia and Malaysia – they account for more than 80% of global palm oil production.

How is it made?

Oil palm trees are grown in large plantations, where the fruit is harvested and then taken to processing facilities. More than 60 million tonnes of palm oil is produced annually, accounting for over 30% of the world’s vegetable oil production.

Oil palms produce fruit for an average of 30 years and once they’re no longer fruitful, they’re injected with pesticides and bulldozed to make room for new trees.

Can palm oil be produced sustainably?

In theory, there’s no reason why palm oil can’t be produced sustainably. It requires far less land than other sources of vegetable oil and, once established, the palm oil tree remains fruitful for decades. But the current demand for palm oil has led to unsustainable practices that negatively impact the environment and communities local to the palm.

Many smallholders struggle to keep up with the demand that corporate owned plantations are able to supply. Plantation workers are subjected to long working hours with very little pay. And some of the world’s most popular brands source their so-called ‘sustainable’ palm oil from plantations that engage in forced labour and child labour.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was set up in 2004 to address sustainability issues surrounding palm oil. But by their own admission, the RSPO is flawed and change is slow, given the volume of stakeholders involved in any decision making.

Why is palm oil bad for the environment?

Mass production funded by big corporations has had a catastrophic impact on the planet:

  • Deforestation. Vast expanses of rainforest are cut down and burned to make room for the rising demand for palm oil – it’s the number one cause of rainforest destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia. Land from indigenous peoples has been stolen to produce palm oil, and even national parks established to provide habitats for endangered species are being overrun with illegal palm oil plantations.
  • Climate change. The destruction of rainforest and peatland for palm plantations releases thousands of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. Rainforest and plantation fires also pollute the air with carbon dioxide. And on top of that, the planting of palm on steep slopes causes soil erosion and increased risk of flooding.
  • Water pollution. A palm oil mill generates around 2.5 tonnes of wastewater for every tonne of palm oil it produces – this is known as palm oil mill effluent (POME). Current methods of treatment release biogas into the air which adds to global carbon emissions. And when it’s not treated, palm oil wastewater threatens the biodiversity of the rivers and streams it’s pumped into.

How is wildlife affected by palm oil production?

Aside from risks to biodiversity posed by pesticides and chemical fertilisers, the biggest threat to wildlife by palm oil production is loss of habitat. Many animals are injured or killed when areas of rainforest are decimated to make way for palm plantations, and they’re also left vulnerable to poachers and wildlife smugglers.

In the last 20 years alone, orangutan numbers have dwindled by 80% as a result of widespread deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. Other endangered species currently under threat include the Sumatran elephant, the Bornean pygmy elephant, the Sumatran rhino, and the Sumatran tiger.

What are the benefits of palm oil?

The palm itself is an incredibly efficient tree, with a much higher yield than other crops used in vegetable oil production. On average, it produces up to 10 times more per hectare than soya, rapeseed and sunflower.

Palm oil creates vital economic stability for communities and countries across Asia and Africa. It provides a livelihood for of some of the world’s poorest farmers, and paid labour for people in impoverished areas.

It’s also extremely cost effective to produce, although the benefits of this cost saving are typically only reaped by rich corporations.

Which products contain palm oil?

Here are just some of the types of product that contain palm oil:

  • Bread
  • Chocolate
  • Crisps
  • Biscuits
  • Non-dairy substitutes
  • Butter, margarine and spreads
  • Cereal
  • Cooking oil
  • Ice cream
  • Nut butters
  • Chocolate spread
  • Soap
  • Pet food
  • Shampoo
  • Toothpaste
  • Make up
  • Cleaning products

The Ethical Consumer website has lots of useful information about brands that are palm oil free, or who only use sustainable palm oil in their products.

Should you boycott palm oil?

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as boycotting palm oil altogether. A total boycott would result in a loss of livelihood for some of the world’s poorest communities – many of whom have suffered climate change displacement, at the hands of the world’s wealthiest countries.

Boycotting palm oil fails to address wider issues of mass production and over-consumption – it isn’t palm oil itself, but our demand for high volumes at low cost that have wreaked havoc on the planet. A boycott also just means we’re shifting over-farming and poor environmental practice onto other crops to compensate – crops that are less efficient and require more land to keep up with current production demands.

So what can you do?

While the current situation may seem bleak, there’s still lots you can do to change the way the palm oil industry operates and to combat global deforestation:

  • Petition and lobby corporate brands. Check for parliamentary petitions that call for sustainable palm oil, and write to corporate organisations to demand sustainable production and fairer conditions for palm oil plantation workers.
  • Support smallholders. They make up 40% of palm oil producers and are the key to sustainability, but they’re floundering under the weight of industrial plantations. Traidcraft only supply products that use sustainable palm oil from smallholders, ensuring they receive a fair wage and support for environmental initiatives.
  • Donate to environmental charities. Donating to a charity that actively restores the rainforest is probably the best use of your money when it comes to tackling deforestation. The Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS) is replanting Sumatra’s rainforests bit by bit, so donating to them can help reverse the effects of deforestation. You can donate monthly, make a one-off donation or even buy a bar of soap! The SOS has teamed up with Lush, so every time you buy one of its Orangutan soaps, every penny will go to the SOS.      
  • Consume less meat. Animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of global deforestation and climate change. By reducing your demand for meat – or even switching to a vegan diet – you can help encourage suppliers to produce food more sustainably.
  • Buy local produce. Buying locally-grown, organic produce will reduce your carbon footprint and help replenish the Earth’s resources by foregoing chemical pesticides and fertilisers. Make food at home, rather than buying additive-heavy supermarket produce.
  • Say no to fast fashion. Buy from clothing brands that use sustainable materials – here’s how to reduce your carbon footprint by making ethical shopping choices.

Read our top tips to combat climate change for more ideas on how you can help our planet.

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