What is Palm Oil and Why is it So Bad?
September 13, 2018 • 4 min read
This post has been written by our guest contributor: Stacey Burr
With all the noise online recently about palm oil, you may be wondering why it’s such a bad thing. Unfortunately, what many don’t realize is that we are consuming it regularly and unintentionally contributing to mass deforestation and destruction of beautiful natural habitats as a result. This vegetable oil is in most processed products we use, from toothpaste to cookies. Palm oil plantations cover 27 million hectares, an area bigger than New Zealand and approximately 85% comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. It is destructive in the following ways:
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The WWF has stated that worldwide, an area the size of 300 football fields of lush rainforest is cleared each hour to make way for palm oil plantations. Each hour… has that sunk in? OK, let’s continue. Having grown in popularity over the years, its demand has skyrocketed and to keep up, producers in South East Asia burn entire forests or drain ancient, carbon-rich peatlands to make room for new palm oil plantations. Borneo was nearly covered in forests and inhabited by species in an abundance and diversity very few places in the world could match. Now only 50% of the forests remain. In addition to mass deforestation and disgusting air pollution, these processes release scarily high amounts of carbon emissions and as a result of wastewater disposal, thousands of fish die and rivers are no longer safe for bathing, drinking or fishing.
Palm oil production leads to the destruction of ancient habitats, home to beautiful, majestic animals, plant-life and birds, driving vulnerable species to the point of extinction. Orangutans, Asian elephants, Sumatran tigers and Sumatran rhinos are a few of the endangered animals. You may have seen this heartbreaking videoof an orangutan fighting a bulldozer in a wasted attempt to save its home. Many animals starve or find themselves lost between a plantation and a village or farm. Animals are subsequently killed for “trespassing” into palm oil plantations. Baby orangutans, left orphaned and terrified, are captured and sold as pets. The cruelty and disregard for these incredible creatures could take up half of this article. If we continue down this road, orangutans will be extinct in 10 years.
Production of palm oil displaces indigenous people, subsistence farmers and causes conflict and corruption. Often, traditional tribal lands are taken to be used as plantations with no concern for how this disrupts the livelihoods and culture of the inhabitants. Many villagers in project areas become poorly paid labourers,working in inhumane conditions. Amnesty International has found child and forced labour in corporate giants’ supply chains. Forced to give up their crops or gardens, poor rural farmers often move into new virgin forest lands or marginal areas to clear more rainforest for subsistence farming.
I encourage you to read more on this subject, but for now I would like to equip you with a basic understanding and inspire a positive approach to this issue. Simply put, avoid palm oil.
Products that commonly contain palm oil:
The below list is by no means exhaustive and is sourced from The World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
- Pizza dough
- Instant Noodles
- Ice cream
- Cookies/Packaged baked goods
- Packaged bread
Is Sustainable Palm Oil OK?
In a nutshell, no. Unfortunately there isn’t a clear sustainable option because palm oil supply chains are complex and often vague. The RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) is supposed to hold its members accountable, but the bar has been set low to keep companies part of the organisation. The market for unsustainable palm oil is massive, so the morally processed stuff simply can’t compete.
What can we do?
It can feel overwhelming to hear the terrible facts about something that appears in products we use daily. Despite feeling distressed and angry at brands we felt we trusted lying to us, most of us don’t know where to start to make a difference. As is the case with any big change, in order to be sustainable, we need to start small. Here are just a few steps that can be taken:
- Read the ingredients and choose palm oil free alternatives where possible.
- Cook at home and experiment with making things from scratch. e.g. Make your own pizza dough, moisturizer or toothpaste.
- Call on your political representatives to advocate for the mandatory labeling of palm oil.
- Sign petitions and support organisations such as: International Animal Rescue , RAN , WWF
- Support companies who are transparent and sustainable.
- Use the Buycott app on your phone to see the ethical rating of loads of products.
- Avoid palm based biofuel. With their CO2 and methane emissions, palm oil-based biofuels have three times the climate impact of traditional fossil fuels.
Stay informed. Sneaky names for palm oil include:
Palm Kernel Oil
Palm Fruit Oil
Sodium Laureth Sulfate
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
Sodium Palm Kernelate
Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate
Hyrated Palm Glycerides
Often the easiest way to find palm oil free products is to buy locally from small businesses that are transparent about their ingredients. I have a few local UK businesses that I love supporting because they care about the environmental impact of their products. A bonus is that this route supports the local economy and community. Happy, smug feels all the way.
Examples of Palm Oil Free Products:
We have all heard the saying “Buy less, buy better.” It applies in this case too. We are so used to being overwhelmed with selection, that it can feel freeing to support fewer brands that you confidently trust, knowing for sure that they don’t contribute to deforestation, animal extinction and other lovely such things. Choosing convenience over the environment isn’t worth it. Consumers drive demand. If we buy fewer palm oil products, remain informed and make the best possible choices as consumers, we can change the fate of our planet.
About the Author
Stacey Burr, a guest contributor for Forage and Sustain, is a graphic designer and photographer based in London. Zero waste, with an interest in all aspects of sustainability; she’s also a nature lover, avid explorer and quoter of nineties sitcoms. She is passionate about living a ethical, considered lifestyle and aims to inspire positive change wherever she can.
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